Back in January, the idea that the Lawrence school district had for expanding career and technical education programs was pretty simple: The school district would issue bonds to renovate space in the existing Holcom Center building near 25th and Iowa that already provides some CTE classes.
The district then would partner with a few area community colleges – Johnson County, Neosho County and Kansas City, Kan. - to offer courses there.
That idea was just a $5.7 million part of a larger $92.5 million bond package that the school board was seeking. The overall idea was to renovate aging elementary schools, expand the district's networking technology and position the entire district for the full spectrum of "21st century teaching and learning."
The public approved overwhelmingly, passing the bond issue with 72 percent of the vote in the April 2 election.
But now, area business leaders want to refine and expand on the district's original idea. And they are pushing a larger, more complex plan aimed at serving the needs of students, adults and local employers.
“The thought is to create one large community tech center that partners with the school district,” said Doug Gaumer, president of Intrust Bank in Lawrence and chairman of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
More comprehensive center needed
He said there clearly is a need for more career and technical education opportunities for high school students. But he said a more comprehensive training center could also benefit adults in the community who want to train for new careers, as well as existing businesses who need workers with very specific skills.
“This would offer benefits to the kiddos in public school and our population as a whole,” Gaumer said this week.
Some details of the proposal were discussed at the Lawrence school board meeting Monday. But Gaumer provided additional detail at a meeting Friday of the Lawrence-Douglas County Joint Economic Development Council, where he stressed that the plan still is in a conceptual stage, and still undergoing revision.
Based on discussions at both of those meetings, as well as interviews with Chamber and school officials, the once-simple plan for expanding school district programs at the Holcom Center now looks like this:
• Location: Instead of the Holcom Center, the Chamber plan would place the new technical education center in a more industrial area, at a 20-acre site at 2920 Haskell Ave. currently owned by Hiper Technology Inc.
• Ownership: The Economic Development Council of Lawrence and Douglas County would buy that property with low-interest financing from a consortium of local banks, led by Intrust. So far, Gaumer said, six other banks have expressed interest in taking part. The EDC would then lease back to Hiper Technology the roughly 15,000 square feet of space it now occupies, leaving about 50,000 to 60,000 square feet of space available for an adult technical education center.
Part of that space would be used to offer programs through community colleges and technical schools. But a certain amount of “flex space” would be set aside for custom job training to meet the needs of employers in Douglas County.
Gaumer said it's not yet certain whether the EDC would remain the permanent owner of the facility, or if it eventually would shift ownership to a governing board for the new education center.
• Governance: Gaumer said there would need to be some kind of governing structure for the adult portion of the new tech center, but those details haven't been worked out. The governing structure, however, is likely to include representatives from all of the institutions offering programs at the center.
• School district facility: The EDC would donate part of the 20-acre tract to the school district to be used as the site of its own facility. The bonds that voters approved in April would be used to construct that new building. That's intended to allay concerns by school board members about spending public bond proceeds to renovate and improve a facility that the school district wouldn't own.
• Federal grant funding: Gaumer said Neosho County Community College filed an application July 3 for a Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. That application reportedly was made on behalf of the school district and the three community colleges, as well as Washburn Institute of Technology in Topeka and the Flint Hills Technical Institute in Emporia.
Gaumer said he did not know how large a grant the group was seeking, and Neosho County college officials were not available Friday to answer questions. But Gaumer said the grant would fund equipping both facilities for courses in machine technology, networking, health sciences and all the other programs they plan to offer.
No commitment yet
School board members so far have made no commitment to sign on with the Chamber's plan. But neither have they dismissed it.
Instead, they are looking at the two plans simultaneously, moving ahead with the job of preparing cost estimates and design schemes for their original plan, while waiting to see a final proposal from the Chamber and other entities interested in a different kind of project.
“We are simply gathering information at this point,” school board president Rick Ingram said. “We want to make a decision when we have all the information.”
Ingram said the board plans to hold public hearings on the proposal before it makes any decision. He said those would probably be scheduled in late August or early September, after families return from summer vacations.