Charlene Sims, Journal staff
STARS director seeks county funding as enrollment doubles
Students Lainy Swearingen, left, and Abby Stone work together to splice fiber-optic cable together during a class at the Southeastern Technical Academy for Rural Students STARS). (Submitted photo)
MOUND CITY – Linn County's fledgling technical and trade school could be a victim of its own success. As the Pleasanton-based Southeastern Technical Academy for Rural Students (STARS) wraps up the 2022-23 school year, its director is worried about funding as the enrollment is expected to more than double this fall.
The Linn County Commissioners on Monday, May 1, heard a request for the county’s monetary support of the STARS program from Allen.
Several STARS students accompanied Allen to the commission meeting to tell the commissioners of the success of the program and answer any questions. Those students included Brooklyn Lohman, a senior in the heavy equipment class; Cordell Self, a senior in the welding class; junior Tony Gillespie, welding; and Braden Baldwin, heating, ventilation, cooling (HVAC).
Allen told the commissioners that with more students enrolled in the program for the 2023-2024 school year, improvements needed to be made to the building.
Allen explained that the building was purchased by the Pleasanton USD 344 school district and that the school district was paying payments on it. He expressed concerns that when a new superintendent takes over, that person may not be as supportive of the program. The purchase price of the building was $275,000.
He said that the present superintendent, Travis Laver, has told him that this may not be as big of a concern if the STARS program took over the building by paying the remainder of the payments for the building.
Allen said that this school year the enrollment started at just over 50 and dropped down to 40 because students who had enrolled decided it wasn’t for them or they were not willing to do the work.
For enrollment next year, Allen said they were looking at a little over 80 new students and 20 returning students.. He said that he felt that the building needed to be remodeled to make it more like a school with classrooms, computer labs, storm shelter and additional bathrooms. Currently, it has three bathrooms.
“We need to take the place from looking like an old car dealership and turning it into looking more like a school and a little more something we are proud of,” said Allen.
But according to Allen, it is required that he has to have an architect stamp of approval for the remodeling. The architect will cost at least $3,000. Allen plans on the students doing much of the actual work but supplies will have to be purchased.
Commission Chair Danny McCullough asked if the program had a board yet. Allen said that it is hard to recruit a board for an abstract project. His hopes are that if the county would set up a mill levy for the program that would add credibility to the project and he could attract people for the board.
Allen said that his idea for the board would be three people from the industry, a representative from each of the three school districts, a representative from the county and a representative from Fort Scott Community College. He said that he likes the idea of an eight-member board because you have to have two votes to carry that board. If it is a tie the vote does not carry.
Allen explained that when the program began it was just an abstract idea and until something is concrete, it is hard to attract board members, sell the program to the county or take out loans at banks.
Allen said the reason to start STARS first and then ask for funding was to see what kind of interest there was in the program. He said he was not going to ask the county to fund a program that had very little interest.
But we have the participation of all three school districts, he added.
Allen said that for the past year, they have been getting by using surplus equipment from the school districts like big circle tables and chairs and tools from the instructors.
“We need to have a school that we are proud of and in order to do that, we’ve got to have a funding source,” said Allen. ”So, straight to the chase, I’d like to see if the county is interested in getting behind us, funding us, so we can continue to grow and develop STARS.”
McCullough said that he was very impressed with the program and wishes that something like that would have been available when he was a student. He said he did not think that they were asking for too much, and it was the county’s duty to help it succeed.
County Clerk David Lamb said that a mill levy countywide would raise about $320,000.
County Counselor Gary Thompson asked if the money was being requested for this year or next year.
Lamb said that it might be possible to fund the program out of this year’s budget. He also answered McCullough’s question about whether this could be added to the budget for next year, saying that the commissioners could add it if they wanted to.
Lamb pointed out that the only problem was if they intended to keep the budget revenue neutral next year. He said that if the budget did not stay revenue neutral notices would have to be sent to the taxpayers.
Allen said that even a motion or commitment about funding would help him get a board set up and they would be able to borrow the money from a bank to start remodeling this summer.
“I think, in my opinion, this should be in the top three if not five of the things we should be taking care of and helping with in the community. I think it is a huge asset to the county, “ said McCullough. “I’d like to do anything we can to make it happen.”
Hightower said that he thought the program was doing great things and he thought it was a worthy cause for the county to pursue. But before adding a mill levy for the program, he would like to see a rough budget of how the money would be spent. Hightower asked if this would be used to cover salaries of the instructors.
Allen answered that Fort Scott Community College provided the salaries of the instructors and he even received a small salary.
Allen named off some of the expenses he hoped the county funds would cover including the remodeling, parking lot repair, storm shelter, assistance to instructors.
At present, the instructors and Allen are supplying tools and supplies from their own pockets for the classes.
Allen said that it was great having instructors who were doing it for the betterment of the community and the betterment of the kids and believed so much in the program that they were helping with supplies but it made it harder to recruit instructors when they realized how much they had to put into it.
Allen said that part of his role and the instructors is to help get the seniors placed in jobs when they completed the program.
Hightower asked that he put this information in budget form and give it to the commissioners to look over.
Allen told the commissioners that, when the program started, organizers envisioned emergency medical technician (EMT), medical coding, and criminal justice classes. These were more classroom-type programs that did not require a college degree to get into the workforce.
Other classes were carpentry, welding, HVAC, and heavy equipment were more of the shop type-programs, Allen said. Carpentry fell through for a couple of different reasons, mostly to do with communication with the instructors.
Carpentry is the deficit in our program, Allen admitted. It is one that we have got to fix. Carpentry and the other skills will help toward building affordable housing.
Allen said that there is a community member who is interested with a fairly sizable donation in getting carpentry up and going. But we need continued funding for the program for instruction. He explained that while FSCC was helped with getting supplies they had no interest in improving the campus.
He told the commissioners that the courses were dual credit courses and the students received credit toward their high school graduation and college credits.
Hightower asked where Fort Scott Community College got the money for the programs. Allen said that it came from the FSCC’s general fund.
Students who have graduated from high school can use grants and Pell grants to pay for the program, Allen said. High school students do not have to pay because these are approved career technical classes through state Senate Bill 155.
Senate Bill 155 was passed to enhance career technical education in Kansas and prepare high school students for college and careers. Kansas high school students qualify for state-funded college tuition in approved technical courses offered by Kansas technical and community colleges.
Linn County has a small tax on real estate that goes to the college. Until the STARS program, there was no official program or location for instructors to teach students in the county.
Commissioner Jim Johnson said he would like to the school districts have a little more buy in into the program.
Allen, said having been on the school board, he realized that school district funds are pretty much set. While Pleasanton USD #344 is the smallest and the poorest district in the county, the administration and board have purchased the building for the startup of the program.
Allen said it was a stretch for Prairie View USD 362 and Jayhawk USD 346 to monetarily fund a program that was not in their taxing district. But both districts have provided supplies and transportation for the program.
Allen also noted that these were not high school courses but college courses and in which any high school graduate could enroll for $105 per credit hour.
“If we like what we are doing, we’ve got to figure out a way to make it sustainable, and now we are sustaining but just barely,” said Allen.
Allen’s proposal to the county was that they put in place a one mill levy for three years to get help the program get started. He said that he would be a good steward of the county money and would report in three years
If the program didn’t need additional funding after that, we will tell you we don’t need it, he said.
Allen said that even a monetary commitment of half a mill for a year would help build the legitimacy of the program, which would help him set up a board and borrow money to remodel.
Hightower asked that Allen bring a estimated budget to the commissioners.
The commissioners agreed to sponsor a community development block grant (CDBG) for the STARS program last month. CDBG applicants have to be government entities so the commissioners agreed to help with the grant. The grant money from the grant which is still in the process, would run its money through the county. The grant was for $100,000 to put in a lab with 25 computers with desks.