Central Lee balks at Joint Education Center

State code says other districts can’t teach at center without Central Lee’s authorization


FORT MADISON – A move to purchase a building in Montrose to house a future joint education center was snagged Thursday by Central Lee Community School District.

Fort Madison Community School District’s Board of Directors unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding at Monday’s meeting to support moving forward with Phase 1 of the project, which includes the purchase of the 30,000-square foot former KL Megla building near Montrose.

The building is located across from Dollar General on Hwy. 61 in the Central Lee Community School District and will require a purchase investment in excess of $1 million.

The Lee County Economic Development Group’s Board of Directors voted Thursday morning to approve moving forward with the purchase through the Southeast Iowa Regional Economic & Port Authority.

The port authority can either issue revenue bonds, give out loans, or guarantee loans for capital expenses within its territory. They cannot, however, exercise eminent domain or levy taxes.

The former KL Megla building is at the center of a proposed purchase by the Southeast Iowa Regional Economic & Port Authority to be used for a joint educational center. However, Central Lee, which is the district where the building sits, is balking at the project. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

According to LCEDG President Dennis Fraise, the LCEDG board voted to support non-educational operating expenses for the first two years, raise funds to retire the mortgage on the building, and establish a charitable trust for the education center.

But Central Lee Superintendent Dr. Andy Crozier issued a statement on Thursday following a Pen City Current request for comment on the district’s position regarding the joint education center.

Crozier wrote, “The Central Lee Community School District Board of Education did not approve the MOU, as it was never shared with the district.”

He also wrote the district will not grant authorization for Fort Madison or Keokuk school districts to operate high school classes on property within the district.

Iowa Code 274.1 gives the district exclusive jurisdiction in all school matters over the territory of the district.

Crozier added Central Lee is interested in expanding programs and partnering with neighboring schools, but for that to happen other parties “must fully include our school district in conversations and planning, something that has not consistently taken place in the past”.

Fraise said everyone has had the opportunity to be involved in the discussions to this point.

“We are raising private funds and there are no taxpayer dollars involved. Everyone has been involved, or had the opportunity to be involved, in the ongoing discussions on the joint education center over the past several years. For anyone to suggest otherwise is inaccurate,” he said.

Crozier’s statement also said Central Lee would require that Southeastern Community College, another entity that’s been part of the discussions, assume full ownership of the building and programming for the district to consider the project.

“As a school district, we believe strongly in workforce development. However we do not believe in wasting taxpayer money to purchase and renovate a building that may or may not meet our needs. To that end, Central Lee does not support the Joint Education Center at this time,” Crozier’s release read.

“We would also need a sound financial model demonstrating how the project is sustainable over time. As of today, the project does not appear to meet this standard.”

Fraise said LCEDG’s top challenge is workforce and the joint education center is an avenue to increase workforce and training. He said the only thing keeping the project from moving forward is Central Lee’s support.

“We are extremely disappointed in that response,” Fraise said Thursday afternoon.

“We’re concentrating on what’s best for kids and the big picture. Every one of our industries is supportive of the idea and we have letters from all of them. And our board voted today to overwhelmingly support it.

“All we want is that if they don’t want to participate – and we want them to be a part of this – but if they don’t, then simply do not stand in the way.”

Fraise said if Central Lee allowed the project to move forward, the district would not shoulder any costs or risks of the project. He said the port, LCEDG, Fort Madison Economic Development Corp., and Keokuk Economic Development Corp. have all committed to help with funding.

He also said Keokuk and Fort Madison schools would pick up the educational costs of the high school programs.

“We have a viable financial plan. LCEDG, FMEDC, and KEDC have all stepped up and put aside funds to allow these programs.”

He said the purchase agreement with KL Megla’s corporate offices in Germany is ready to be executed.

Fraise said the hope is that all districts in Lee County would be part of the joint education center as the county is facing dire workforce issues.

“We know where our industry stands. Those 4,000 jobs and $250 million in wages are our backbone,” he said.

“The last couple plant closures – Scotts and ConAgra – went our way. Others states and communities lost and we gained. But if we don’t address this head on, we run the real risk of seeing our industrial base dwindle.”

In the last 30 days, the county was informed of 130 layoffs at Siemens-Gamesa and the closing of Bagcraft in October, which will eliminate another 104 jobs.

The joint education facility would be used initially to supplement high school curriculum around building trades, welding, and business programs. Programming is being planned to start in the fall of 2021.

Fort Madison Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater issued a statement Thursday evening after receiving the Central Lee statement from Crozier.

“The planning for a Lee County Joint Education Center has been in the planning stages for over five years.  This planning has involved all three public school districts in Lee County, business, industry, Southeastern Community College and Lee County Economic Development Group,” she said.
“How extremely disappointing to get to the stage of fruition and read this statement.  With our continued focus on what’s best for kids, it is our hope that a Joint Education Center for Lee County can continue on its path to provide needed classes and experiences for our youth and for the future of Lee County.”

Slater said Wednesday, the reason for relocating the programs, in what has been called Phase 1, “is that it would be cost-neutral for the districts, as the districts already possess the equipment and staff for these programs.”

Phase 2 would potentially include programs that don’t currently exist in Lee County in a partnership with Southeastern Community College. The focus would be to create credit-bearing courses or academics that would result in concurrent enrollment for students.

All calls to SCC President Dr. Michael Ash were unreturned.

Fort Madison school board director Dianne Hope said the center would be a “phenomenal” development.

“This is a phenomenal situation for our students to share resources. For the county its quite the development,” she said.

Close to 25 county industries participated in a survey assembled by LCEDG and 68% indicated they are having trouble finding qualified workers for open positions.

The 25 employers accounted for 4,146 full-time time employees, 31 part-time, and 330 temporary positions. Forty-eight percent indicated they see a benefit to JEC and SCC’s Keokuk Industrial Tech facility working to train future workforce.

The industry officials were also questioned as to how they see their company supporting a program that created a talent pipeline from the JEC to the SCC Keokuk Training Center.

Of the respondents, 91% said they would hire from that pool. Other responses included mentorships (64%), teaching/coaching a class (45%), internships for high school students (45%), and apprenticeships (50%). Twenty-seven percent said they would support the program financially.

Crozier said he’s unaware of any financial support from industries.

“There has been no evidence of financial commitment from any industries shared with school districts,” he said.

Keokuk Superintendent Christine Barnes said the Keokuk board hasn’t approved the memorandum, but will hear more about it at a work session on Tuesday.

She said the Central Lee statement was disappointing.

“After all three Lee County Schools have worked together for the past five years on developing a joint education center, this statement is very disappointing,” she wrote in an email to Pen City Current Thursday evening.

“The location of this center is ideal for all three districts as well as for their students.  This building would have been funded by local business and industry donors, not taxpayer dollars. The possibility of creating a joint Career Technical Education Center in order to bridge the gap between school and work will provide many benefits for both Lee County students and county employers.”

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