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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

STARS director: Project Bus Stop starts building program

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Members of American Legion Hewitt New Post No. 248 met with students and instructors at the STARS building before school ended in May. American Legion members, in front row from left, included Jeffrey Mastin, Tony Davila, Joanna Meyer, and William Jordan. In the back row, from left, is heavy equipment instructor Phil Mitchell, students Morgan Barron, Brooklyn Lohman, Justin Stevens, Landon Luney, Alex Foster, Bryce Johnson, Braden Baldwin,

HVAC instructor Bill Hein, students Tony Gillespie, Kayden Proffit, and Stephen Wilson. Below is the rebuilt bus stop at Hidden Valley Lakes. (Photos by Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)

PLEASANTON – When Jay Allen, director of the Southeast Technical Academy for Rural Students (STARS), put out a plea to the Linn County Commission earlier this year for money to help fund the school’s growth and supply issues for the fall, many people were skeptical.

Wasn’t this part of a school program, and wasn’t the government going to cover the costs to keep the technical academy in supplies? The answer to those questions was both “yes” and “no.”

Pleasanton USD 344 district received grants from Heartland Rural Electric Cooperative and other corporate sponsors to create classrooms, and install new doors and heating and cooling units, and the other school districts in the county donated some supplies where they could.

Fort Scott Community College provides salaries for instructors and even for Allen, a physician who juggles his duties at STARS with his position with Community Health Centers of Southeast Kansas (CHCSEK).

Allen has begun the process of creating STARS as a stand-alone entity. An attorney has begun the process of making the academy a 501C3 tax-exempt corporation. And Allen is in the process of creating a board of directors for the school.

Despite those advances, Allen welcomes any money that is donated.

Even before the STARS director approached the county a few weeks ago for a one-mill levy for 2024, members of the American Legion Hewitt New Post No. 248 and other organizations stepped in to provide funds for materials.

Seeing that the program needed money for materials for a project, American Legion members went to work.

They learned of a need that most of the lake communities have: Because school buses cannot negotiate the often winding roads in those developments, the children who live there need shelters for the bus stop at the lake entrances. They also discovered that the STARS students could either build or repair those bus stops, but that program didn’t have money for materials.

That was especially true of the bus shelter at Hidden Valley Lakes which, although it is in Bourbon County, is in the Jayhawk USD 346 district. The shelter was in dire need of repair or replacement.

First, American Legion member Joanna Meyer rallied fellow American Legion members, many of whom are tradesmen. She said they realized the positive impact the STARS program could have on young men and women seeking a trade alternative to college.

Then American Legion members reached out to other organizations and churches to contribute to Project Bus Stop. In most cases they were successful, and the group raised about $5,000 from Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Christian Women in Service, and My Power of One, a local charitable organization.

Meyer said she hopes this initial effort will spearhead a grassroots community enrichment effort that will extend countywide.

So what about the one-mill levy the commissioners approved on a split vote?

That levy is expected to raise about $320,000 for the STARS program. The problem is that money won’t start coming in until early next spring. Meanwhile, staff at the school is expecting to double the enrollment during the school’s second year, and they have volunteered there time over the summer to expand the number of classrooms available in the former Cox Motors auto dealership building on Laurel Street in south Pleasanton.

Flexible ductwork hangs from the ceiling after Allen and STARS instructors removed most of the interior walls at the front of the school's building. The concrete floor has already been polished. Several classrooms will be built in the space by mid-August.

Soon after the spring semester was done in May, Allen along with the instructors began demolition on the front portion of the school’s building. The plan is to build classrooms in that space by the time school restarts in August.

“We had to do that,” Allen said. “We didn’t have any choice.”

But demolition, especially with donated labor, is relatively cheap. Building back the classroom will take more money, Allen said. Although he planned to use the one-mill commitment from the county commission to leverage a loan for the project, he ran into a problem: The bank wouldn’t loan money to a separate STARS organization because the school district still owns the building.

Pleasanton USD 344 Superintendent Travis Laver said he was working with a bank to make a lease-purchase agreement to finance those classrooms in the meantime.

Noting that Allen had been operating a muscle-powered scraper to clean glue used to secure now-removed vinyl tiles to the concrete floor, he praised the staff for their efforts to ensure the continued success of STARS.

On Tuesday, June 27, Allen said the floors are done and that he expects the framing of the classrooms to begin by the second week in July. In order to save money, the concrete floors were polished and sealed and ready for walls, ceilings and doors.

Allen continues to look down the road with the goal of making the program more successful. He said that student project of building bus stops was just a beginning. He looks forward to a full-blown construction program.

“We’re going to build a house and help with the housing crisis in Linn County,” he said.

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