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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

County to budget 1-mill levy for STARS program in 2024

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

STARS Director Jay Allen, left, and welding instructor Shane Kern talk to the Linn County Commission about the importance of the job skills program on Monday. (Charlene Sims/Linn County Journal)

By Charlene Sims, Journal staff

MOUND CITY – The Linn County Commission on a split vote approved a one-mill levy to fund the Southeast Technical Academy for Rural Students (STARS) in Pleasanton for 2024. The 2 to 1 vote came during the commission meeting on Monday, May 15, following a discussion with STARS Director Jay Allen and instructors at the school.

Currently for the county one mill raises about $320,000.

The motion also included that one of the commissioners would sit on the board for STARS.

When Allen attended the commission meeting on May 1, he said that he would like to have an eight-member board with a representative from each of the three school district, one from the commission, three people from the industry and one from Fort Scott Community College, which provides salaries for STARS staff and additional support.

On Monday, Allen brought more information about his plans for the program and the building renovations that needed to be completed before school starts in the fall. He said that contractor Roy Wade had provided him with a budget for a complete remodel for $347,000.

Allen said all of the renovations didn’t need to be completed overnight and that it could be a three- to 10-year project.

Allen said the program needs a classroom remodel. It doesn’t need to be a complete overhaul. But, it is just how proud everyone is of STARS and he said is proud of the work that has been done.

Commissioner Jim Johnson, who cast the vote against the mill levy, said that he had talked with the superintendent at Garnett USD 365 about the program that is done in conjunction with Anderson County High School.

He said he learned that the Garnett district paid for all the buildings and that Anderson County pays nothing. Johnson said that there are some kids from Prairie View are attending that program this year.

Emporia-based Flint Hills Technical College (FHTC) and Neosho County Community College have a joint partnership there, said Johnson.

However, according to a news report by radio station KVOE in Emporia, FHTC is expected to request $70,000 from the Lyon County Commission this month to reimburse some of its program costs.

At Monday’s meeting, Allen said that STARS uses the model of the Southeast Kansas Career and Technical Education Center (SEK CTEC) of Crawford County. A large part of the costs for SEK CTEC comes from funds from the casino there.

Allen went on to talk about the dedication of the instructors, their expertise and their help with supplying tools, STARS would not have what it has. He said that without more help, he did not think that it was a sustainable program.,

“It’s probably the only community college campus in the country that has a licensed physician and his wife as janitors,” said Allen, referring to himself. “That is not sustainable.”

Allen said Anderson County may be a little different, he wasn’t sure how many school districts are in Anderson County. STARS is in a smaller district with less resources.

The Garnett school district encompasses about the northern three-quarters of Anderson County, including the communities of Greeley and Westphalia. It also includes a sliver of western Linn County. Crest USD 479, a much smaller district based in Colony, covers much of the rest of the county.

“What’s the option of other school districts helping this?” asked Johnson.

While the STARS program is supported by both Prairie View USD 362 and Jayhawk USD 346, the STARS building is located in the Pleasanton USD 344 district.

Allen, who is also on the Pleasanton school board, said he would explain that the best that he could understand it. The other school districts can support things out of their district that are not concrete. They cannot support building structure. The other districts are working on supporting the utility bills.

In a separate interview with Prairie View USD 362 Superintendent Rex Bollinger with the Journal earlier this month, he said that part of the problem with funding the STARS program is funneling money into a different school district.

Although the Prairie View district is committed to supporting the STARS program and is sending students there, it can only do so much in terms of financial support.

“We’ve just got to figure out a budget and it starts with is the county willing to get behind this? And if they are, what do we need the schools to do?” Asked Allen. “Without a little help, it is going to be difficult getting class room space for these kids.”

Fall enrollment for STARS is going to have a 200% increase from last year.

Allen said it is going to be harder to get support from the industries if the building looks like an old car dealership.

Allen introduced Shane Kern, STARS welding instructor, had taken it upon himself to become director of student placement and STARS was at 80% placement before graduation.

“We are training students that are getting placed in well paying jobs,” said Allen.

Kern also took the STARS students to a welding contest in Garden City where they won the competition against larger schools like Dodge City, Liberal as well as schools from Oklahoma and Texas. The STARS team won four out of five top spots at the competition plus the winning team spot.

Kern said that he had been looking at other programs and he would bet that those places did not have 15 % of their students who actually got into a job that pays the money it should be paying and doing what they actually studied to do.

Kern told the commissioners that he has spent hours talking to his students about where they want to go. These guys all have one thing in common, they all want to live in Linn County and drive somewhere and get a job, or they want to work here in Linn County.

“I’ve got guys who are going to be pipe fitters,” Kern said. “I’ve got guys headed to being (Sprinkler Fitters Local 314 union) fitters. I’ve got a young lady, a senior, who is going to go run heavy equipment. We have got placement. This program is not like any of the other programs.”

Kern told the commissioners that Linn County should be very proud of this program because Allen has put together a group of instructors, who are not just teachers who do this once in a while. The instructors have more than 100 years combined experience.

“There is not a teacher among us; we are all tradesmen,” he said

Going forward the county is going to have county employees, qualified people as police officers, forensics people and emergency medical technicians (EMT). This community is going to prosper, Kern said.

He said that, with the county’s support, he really believed that STARS could fix the problem with finding people to hire in Linn County.

According to Allen, part of the budget includes taking students to competitions like Garden City. That, he said, really gave the students confidence.

“Anderson County, they didn’t even show up. They don’t even show up to competitions like that,” said Allen. “We did not just show up but now everybody in western Kansas has a star in the middle of their dart board. We are now the target in one year. I am proud of what we are doing at STARS.

Phil Mitchell, STARS heavy equipment instructor said, “I am very proud of the program we are getting started. We’ve got a long ways to go. We need a lot of help to do it.”

Mitchell said the main thing he loves about the program is that students from every school in the county attend there. It’s a Linn County school.

Johnson said that he had talked with a lot of people in the last few weeks and he hasn’t heard from anybody that didn’t think it was a good program. He said that while Pleasanton is contributing about $80,000 year, the state pays $22,000 per school year to school districts for students.

Johnson continued that he thought the other school districts, Prairie View and Jayhawk, could buy into the program, because their students are spending three or more hours a day at STARS while their district is getting paid for them.

Johnson says that he thinks it is a great program. But Pleasanton the smallest district has bought into the program and he questioned why the other two school districts won’t buy into it.

STARS heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) instructor Bill Hein told the commissioners that this was not really about school but about our kids, our grandkids, our nephews, our cousins.

“I would hate to be the person that didn’t want to support it,” said Hein. “By supporting it, it is money too. You need to really like the program and support it. We need the money. I supported mine by using all my tools. This is for our kids, it’s not for me or you guys, or the county. It’s for the kids. These kids can go out and make a living and make Linn County better.”

Commission Chair Danny McCullough said that he has not budged on what he thinks about the program. He said he was in 100 % support of it and wanted to do anything he could to help the program.

He said that it was the most important budget item that was on the county’s list.

“I went to a trade school myself and got a degree, and it was great,” said McCullough.

He said that this was better than the economic development program that hired kids to work in the summers in Linn County.

Commissioner Jason Hightower asked what everyone thought of half a mill instead of a one-mill levy.

Allen explained half a mill would get part of what needs to be accomplished and would get the project started. But at half a mill, he said he would be in debt just paying for the remodel.

Hightower said that he thought it needed to be for multiple years because of the budget.

Hightower asked if the STARS program had talked with Evergy for some assistance. Hein said that Evergy had donated welding supplies so far.

Kern said they needed the county to help the program get started to they could get investors in the program.

McCullough said he went to the competitions and they were important.

McCullough asked about how to put this in the budget

County Counselor Gary Thompson said that every budget is a fresh budget and that the county could not technically commit for more than one year at a time. He told the commissioners that they could say they intend to do this past the first year but technically the commission is only allowed to commit a year at a time.

McCullough said he was in favor of a mill this year and reassessing it next year. He said that he could not speak for department heads but he knew that some were trying to help with this behind the scenes by limiting their budgets and saving money for the county.

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