Peaslee Tech leader pleased with center’s enrollment, progress as he prepares to step down

Free State senior Nick Howard works to change the brake pads on a vehicle in his Advanced Auto Tech class on Friday, Sept. 14, 2017 at the Peaslee Technical Training Center, 2920 Haskell Ave., on Friday, Sept. 14, 2017. Peaslee Tech, which opened an auto tech center this year, is exploring a way to help solve its annual funding search.

Marvin Hunt is upbeat as he enters his last weeks as full-time executive director of the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center.

Hunt will step down Sept. 29 as full-time executive director but will remain with Peaslee Tech on a part-time basis through the end of the year. He is leaving the center that opened two years ago at 2920 Haskell Ave. at a very positive time, he said.

“We’re doing great,” he said. “Enrollment is definitely up.”

Peaslee opened in the fall of 2015. The first year, the center had an enrollment of 150 students and grew to 300 students in 2016, Hunt said.

As of Tuesday, Peaslee Tech had 340 students enrolled, but Hunt said that won’t be its 2017 total. More students will enroll as more courses start in October and November, he said.

“I anticipate by the time December gets here, enrollment should be, conservatively, more than 400,” he said.

Helping with the enrollment bump is the center’s new automotive technology program. Hunt said 32 students were enrolled in the program in its first semester. Two automotive technology sections that Johnson County Community College offers are available to students from the Lawrence school district and a third to adults, he said.

“I think it’s a great launch number,” he said. “Really, automotive technology was something a lot of people were interested in seeing us have.”

Hunt said Lawrence auto dealers stepped up to launch the program by providing equipment for the new training shop.

“The former shop at Lawrence High School was too small,” he said. “This is geared toward what an auto dealership would look like. It will give our students a nice background in automotive technology. That’s why the dealerships invested in it.”

This semester, students are taking introductory basics and automotive electrical classes, he said. As they go through the two-year program, students will take classes in all automotive components, he said. Those who complete the program will earn an automotive service excellence certification.

Student tuition for the auto tech classes is paid to JCCC and not Peaslee Tech, Hunt said. In addition, the center has “lenient” arrangements with JCCC and Neosho County Community College and Flint Hills Technical College, which also offer courses at the center, as they establish their local programs, he said.

Nonetheless, Hunt views the new automotive technology program as a plus in strengthening Peaslee Tech because it helps build community relationships and fulfills the center’s mission.

“The more students we have enrolled, the more people know we are out here,” he said. “Our mission is to grow and retain the workforce. That’s what we’re doing with the automotive program for an important sector of our economy.”

Another new development that makes Hunt optimistic about Peaslee Tech’s future is staff expansion. Since its opening, the training center has been run with the shoestring staff of Hunt and his administrative assistant. Kevin Kelley has now joined the staff as program director and has introduced a number of courses through which students can earn certifications or licenses, Hunt said. Those courses are offered through Peaslee and not its partnering community colleges, he said.

“They are revenue sources for us,” he said. “Those tuitions are helpful for our bottom line.”

Like the automotive technology programs, the new credentialing courses, such as the certification course Peaslee Tech is offering in CISCO information technology skills, help address local workforce needs, Hunt said.

“There was no CISCO academy in Lawrence until we offered ours,” he said. “We couldn’t believe it … We called around, and there was not a CISCO academy in the community.”

The center has developed other revenue sources in the last year, as well, Hunt said. Peaslee Tech leased all its available space in its 65,000-square-foot home, with the temporary relocation of the Senior Resource Center of Douglas County to unused office space at the training center. The senior center’s home at 745 Vermont St. is being renovated.

In addition to its own funding streams of tuition and tenant leases, Peaslee Tech receives annual subsidies from the city of Lawrence and county. For 2018, the city is providing $200,000 and the county $95,105 for the training center’s operational costs.

Progress is being made on another front, said Hugh Carter, the Lawrence chamber of commerce’s vice president of external affairs. Peaslee Tech has a $1.57 million balloon payment on its building due in January. Douglas County commissioners agreed in June that the county would contribute $200,000 toward that debt in its 2018 budget, and Carter has been the point person in an effort to put together a consortium of local financial institutions that would purchase Peaslee Tech’s remaining debt with a two-year note.

Carter said Tuesday that 16 local financial institutions have expressed interest in participating in the effort. Although he didn’t know yet how many of those institutions would be part of the final collaboration, Carter said he was confident an arrangement would be in place to buy the existing debt in January.

A delay on the balloon payment was the starting point for the staff recommendations on future Peaslee Tech funding that Lawrence City Manager Tom Markus presented in May to city commissioners.

Those recommendations called for the city and county to share equally in Peaslee Tech’s operational funding, but also proposed the local business community provide a third of those annual costs.

Markus said this week that Peaslee Tech needed to develop a business plan during the two-year mortgage grace period and that one agency should take the lead in funding Peaslee Tech and overseeing the public’s investment. The May memo states that the city prefers the county be that agency.

One of the options the memo proposed would take a different funding track. It would have Peaslee Tech become part of the state’s community and technical college system or a satellite of an already established technical college. Should Peaslee Tech become part of the Kansas Board of Regents system, it would receive funding from a locally raised mill levy. Another advantage of the option would be that it would make students enrolling in the Peaslee-offered programs Kelley is developing eligible for federal financial aid, Markus said.

However, the Kansas Legislature has placed a moratorium on the creation of more community and technical colleges. An effort to include Peaslee Tech in the system would require that the Legislature make an exception to that moratorium, and would also require the approval of voters in the proposed taxing jurisdiction.

Hunt said those obstacles could be overcome by 2020 if the community came to a consensus on supporting the center. But notwithstanding such an initiative, he said he was pleased with Peaslee Tech’s progress in establishing a sustainable framework for the future and fulfilling its mission of providing a trained workforce for the community.

“If you look at any startup, it takes time to get established,” Hunt said. “In our fifth semester, we’re enrolling 400 students. If you told me that three years ago, I would have been very pleased. We’re very optimistic we have established the foundation for a sustainable future.”