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story.lead_photo.caption COURTESY OF BILD ARCHITECTS The Fayetteville firm Bild Architects produced drawings of a proposed Western Benton County Career Center. Bentonville's School Board decided last week the financial requirements for its school district to participate in the center were too great.

— An effort to build a career center in western Benton County hit a wall last week when the Bentonville School Board rejected the financial commitment the project requires.

Bentonville, Decatur, Gentry and Gravette school district officials have discussed a career center for a few years. Officials had architectural renderings of a building and were eyeing a potential site for it on Centerton Boulevard in Centerton.

Janet Schwanhausser, Bentonville's finance director, told the board Thursday the estimated cost to build, equip and furnish the career center is $21 million.

Bentonville makes up 79 percent of the assessed value of the sponsoring districts, so it would be responsible for the same percentage of the bond payment -- about $974,000 per year at an interest rate of 4.5 percent for 30 years.

Bentonville would have to raise 0.6 mills to pay off its share of the debt. If the project were able to attract $5 million in grants and donations -- as some have speculated it could -- the district would need to raise 0.46 mills, according to Schwanhausser.

Bentonville's millage rate is 48.5, one of the highest in the state. Voters approved a 1.9-mill increase in May. Board members showed no appetite for another increase anytime soon.

"I think the idea of raising our taxes is not even an idea that should be presented," said Rebecca Powers, a board member.

The push for a career center stems from educators' desires to support students whose career interests don't necessarily require a four-year college degree, especially in fields where there's a big demand for workers.

"As with any idea, as you go through, you start putting numbers together and what it would look like for us financially. That's where we are now," Schwanhausser said.

Act 509 of this year's legislative session allows school districts to combine resources through a workforce development center authority and build training centers where students may gain vocational skills.

The law mandates each authority set up a board of no fewer than five members consisting of the superintendent of each sponsoring district and the head of the sponsoring vocational-technical school -- in this case, Northwest Technical Institute of Springdale.

Schwanhausser pointed out Bentonville's representation on the board would equal only 20 percent of the members, a fact that left board member Joe Quinn in disbelief.

"I'm sorry. We're going to take on 80 percent of the costs and have 20 percent of the vote?" Quinn said.

Bentonville had considered the career center a potential home for its Ignite program, which immerses students in real experiences in a professional environment with support from a facilitating teacher and professional mentors.

Quinn asked if moving Ignite into the career center would mean surrendering some of Bentonville's control over the program.

"According to the law, by the way the board authority would be appointed, yes," Schwanhausser said.

Bentonville has $3.6 million designated for construction of some kind of facility for Ignite -- possibly as a wing of West High School -- as part of its 10-year plan, Superintendent Debbie Jones said.

Richard Page, superintendent of the Gravette School District, has advocated for a regional career center for years. On Friday, he said Gravette probably will go ahead and do something on a smaller scale on its own.

Gravette recently began offering courses in heating and cooling systems and another allowing students to become certified nursing assistants. Last year it partnered with Northwest Technical Institute to bring a welding class to campus.

Page said he understood the reluctance to move forward on the kind of regional career center that's been discussed, given the cost involved.

"I don't blame anyone," Page said.

Terrie Metz, superintendent of the Gentry School District, said her focus is Gentry's new technical education center that's home to diesel technology and nursing courses. Gentry residents approved a 3.1-mill tax increase last year to pay for the center and a new intermediate school.

"I would not feel comfortable asking patrons for another millage," Metz said.

The districts allow students from other districts to participate in their programs. Gentry, for example, has students from Siloam Springs and Bentonville in its diesel technology program, Metz said. Bentonville's Ignite program has a student from Gravette and two from Gentry, according to Teresa Hudson, program director.

High School Enrollment

The Bentonville, Decatur, Gentry and Gravette school districts have spent the past few years developing the concept of the Western Benton County Career Center. Here's how many students each district had in grades 9-12 as of Oct. 1.

• Bentonville: 4,941

• Decatur: 162

• Gentry: 454

• Gravette: 597

• Total: 6,154

Source: Arkansas Department of Education

General News on 12/06/2017

Print Headline: Bentonville School Board rejects career center plan

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