Board members disappointed in budget numbers and programs being proposed
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Fort Madison school officials had a disappointed reaction to the proposed budget and plans for a Lee County Career Exploration Center Monday night.
The board met in a lengthy four-hour session Monday for its regular meeting with a small portion of the meeting centered on the proposed facility on the grounds of the former KL Megla building just off Hwy. 61 near Montrose.
The facility right now is proposed as a joint operation with the three county school districts, the Lee County Economic Development Group, and Southeastern Community College.
Central Lee’s board had discussed the same budget and program at its meeting a week ago and sent officials back to the facility steering committee with the same message. Neither district said they were ready to step away from the proposed project based on the preliminary working budget, but both boards were chilly to the investment, the length of proposed commitments, and programming.
“I think these budget numbers were significantly higher than any of the districts anticipated so we have had conversations on how to cut the budget and take a look at offering high quality programs but not necessarily at these prices at this time,” said Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater.
But she said there are successes in the process and further conversations need to be held.
Those successes include getting all the districts back to the table with businesses and industry, and Southeastern Community College. She said getting agreement to the program being offered is also a success.
Slater said there would not be any costs to the three school districts in the first year of operations.
“There’s been a commitment from Lee County Economic Development Group not only to purchase the building, but to provide all operating costs for the first year,” she said.
That’s contrary to Central Lee’s school board discussion. Superintendent Dr. Andy Crozier presented a spreadsheet to that board that showed first year costs of close to $84,000 for Central Lee and $104,000 for Fort Madison.
The budget holds Central Lee to a 22% share of the costs, while Fort Madison is at 40% and Keokuk is at 38%.
“As far as setting things up in that particular building you’re not seeing any costs associated at this time because it is anticipated that SCC, in cooperation with other entities, will be writing an EDA grant and SAVE money grant and the intent is for those grant funds to be disseminated in these areas to start up the building,” Slater said.
In year two, the district will be facing about $196,000 with a built-in 2% inflationary factor annually.
“Again this is all subject to change, but I want to focus your attention on the operating costs for this particular facility with the four programs in place.
Slater said initial conversations were for a 10-year commitment, but she said conversations have refocused on a 3- to 5-year commitment. She said there is still work to do on refining the budget.
If the courses proposed are concurring enrollment courses, the district would get weighted-enrollment dollars which would cover some of the costs, but the district would have to see how many students are interested in the program, Slater said.
The programs being proposed include teacher education, pre-engineering; computer science; and automation robotics and industrial technology.
Another success is that the parties have agreed to countywide Robotics team.
Board member Lois DiPrima asked if dwindling enrollment or shifting enrollments within the districts would cause a recalculation of district financial contribution. Slater said that would be a good question to pose during follow-up conversations.
The building was purchased by Southeast Iowa Regional and Economic Port Authority, with a commitment from LCEDG to fund the mortgage.
Board member Tim Wondra said if it’s a joint venture including SCC, what is their contribution.
“I see them contributing nothing on this other than the name,” Wondra said.
Slater said that question has been brought up, but said SCC would be working to secure grants for operations. She said that question will continue to be part of future negotiations.
Wondra also asked why welding and electrical are now not part of the programming, which is what the original intent was.
“That conversation shifted and there wasn’t as much interest from all the parties in doing that so we had to pivot and talk about what programs we don’t currently have at the three school districts, and start additional programming at the center as opposed to existing programming.”
Slater said that could change as the facility grows, but in order to have all parties engaged in the conversation, they pivoted to look at additional programming not at schools.
Wondra said the businesses that were on board were sold on construction and electrical and welding classes.
“That’s why they supported it because that was the workforce they needed,” Wondra said. “So these businesses were sold one thing and now we’re pivoting away from it. If I was one of those businesses I would be very frustrated already with this process.”
Board member Brad Menke asked if the new proposed budget and programming are being created to appease Central Lee, who has walked away from the project previously, and SCC.
“Are we just trying to appease them and SCC and all that stuff? I’d say you’re offering a watered down version of what everybody wanted. It doesn’t seem like it’s fulfilling the industry need that was behind all those letters sitting in front of us for why we approved this joint education project,” Menke said.
Board member Josh Wykert said they are pivoting away from the core value of the project which was getting career-ready children, more career ready.
“I don’t see taking up major space in this building for teacher education. That’s something that can easily be taken care of with current assets in our district,” Wykert said.
Board president Dianne Hope said her understanding is that business and industry is frustrated with the process. She said the process has been going on for six years.
“This is not what I expected. I expected to hear more about what you all have been talking about which is career trades and experience,” Hope said.
“I was asked by someone in industry who asked if we were looking to make this a profit center. We don’t run profit centers in education. I’m just very disappointed in these numbers.”