Your Turn: Editorial on Peaslee Tech was short-sighted

Recent articles have acknowledged Peaslee Tech’s benefit to our community and the value for economic development to Lawrence and Douglas County. Several aspects of the July 17 editorial, however, missed the point about Peaslee Tech’s role for Lawrence and the county.

The editorial stated that “if student demand isn’t there taxpayers shouldn’t bear the burden of funding the center.” Peaslee Tech informed the Journal-World that we opened with 150 students, which exceeded the goal of 100 students, in fall 2015. In 2016 the number of students increased to almost 300, which again exceeded goals. The J-W was correct in identifying capacity at approximately half, but that was intentionally planned for future growth. For fall 2017, we will have a new automotive technology facility with a training program through Johnson County Community College and sponsored financially by the area automotive dealers. A wide range of other new training (CISCO, CDL, Pharmacy Tech, OSHA and more) will launch this fall. These increase revenue.

Our facility is now leased at capacity to three area businesses, which is also good for revenue. Any new business owner will tell you that it takes a few years to establish a business, and Peaslee Tech is no different, as we venture into our third year this fall. Note that a J-W editorial from August 2016 titled “Worth it” stated that “the concept of a countywide tax to support economic development, including the center, should at least be explored.” It stated that Peaslee Tech is “a facility worth investing in.” In fact, two of our board members who manage area manufacturing facilities recently expressed their optimism for their future because of the potential to hire a trained and quality workforce, thanks to Peaslee Tech.

As a model, our state’s technical colleges received 27.4 percent of their revenue from tuition in fiscal year 2015. Thus, other funding sources must be developed by them. Those sources have included state appropriations (35.1 percent), federal grants and contracts (19.5 percent), county and local appropriations (1.5 percent), gifts and other sources. Peaslee is a local innovation and is not part of the state’s community and technical college system and, as long as the current moratorium on new colleges exists, it will not become a state college. Like the state schools, Peaslee Tech has done well at developing multiple funding streams, aside from city and county support, including leases, grants, gifts and tuition for noncredit courses.

The article identifying a $1.57 million balloon payment did not consider that the County Commission recently voted to provide $200,000 for paying down that amount to $1.37 million. Our facility is worth several million now, so considerable equity exists. The editorial was short-sighted by seemingly calling into question the investment in Peaslee Tech in general, even if there are merits in discussing the balloon payment. Certainly, area leaders are helping consider solutions for the payment which, by the way, has not included city investment. The planning by leaders from the Joint Economic Development Corporation, county and city, The Chamber and Peaslee Tech have worked strategically on the sustainability of the mortgage since the beginning of this unique training center. Board member Cindy Yulich was quoted in the July 16 article, saying “the board knows the center needs a long-term, more sustainable approach … we have the partners at the table to help us navigate the problem, and we’ll get there.” The partners are from the private sector. Another viewpoint is that if each person in Lawrence invested $16, the entire mortgage would be paid. Is the lack of $16 worth losing a valuable asset that provides skilled employees for careers, jobs and positive community growth?

A community must step up and address its training and workforce needs. Not a day passes without a business leader adamantly expressing a need for a better trained workforce. Proof of that support is in the private funding we have received from the Belcher Family for our new HVAC lab and for the auto training facility via the auto dealers. At this point, Peaslee Tech’s educational providers (Neosho County Community College and Flint Hills Tech College) have graduated students from HVAC and Industrial Engineering Technology programs, right here in Lawrence, and more will be coming in May 2018.

Our mission states that we are “a catalyst for economic growth providing technical training to a diverse community of learners to meet the current and emerging needs of our communities and employers.” We celebrate our success so far, and are confident in our ability to continue to support this mission with the outstanding partners and support throughout Douglas County. Lawrence should embrace the value of technical training, and therefore the value of our nonprofit organization. In doing so, our community will pave an important path to the future.

— Martin-Smith, Dixon and Yulich are all members of Peaslee Tech’s board of directors. Hunt is the executive director of the school.