Plans for Regional Center for CTE education announced
John Scherle was on the fence.
He counted himself among the undecided voters on the East Mills School District’s proposed $22 million bond initiative that would consolidate the district into a remodeled, preK-12 school in Malvern. The retired 69-year-old felt he just didn’t have enough information to say yes or no as the Sept. 14 vote quickly approaches.
First and foremost in his mind was a big issue for the 1970 Nishna Valley graduate: what is the district’s plan for East Mills Elementary – on the former Nishna Valley campus – in rural Hastings?
“They made a pretty good case for the taxes being fairly in line with other districts so I don’t worry about that,” Scherle said of the East Mills school board’s June presentation on the bond referendum. “My concern has always been what are they going to do with the Nishna Valley campus? And no one has been able to answer that, and I feel like the board did half their job.”
All that changed for Scherle on Friday, Aug. 20 - the day the East Mills School District unveiled its proposal for the elementary school property, should the bond referendum pass. The district announced plans for a Regional Center for Career Technical Education located on the sprawling, 25-acre campus. Iowa Western Community College and Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates were announced as two potential partners. The facility would potentially offer job and skill training to not only East Mills students but a handful of other western Iowa school districts as well.
The announcement follows the school board’s June decision to put the bond up to a vote. A yes vote would mean $22 million in much needed improvements and a tax levy increase on district residents of $2.70 per $1,000 of taxable property valuation. A no vote would send the district back to the drawing board, its litany of infrastructure issues still looming.
The series of community engagement meetings that followed the board’s decision showed district residents like the consolidated school idea but many shared a desire to continue to operate the elementary school property as an educational facility. The new proposal would have the campus buildings transitioned into a center for career and technical training that could meet workforce, education and non-profit needs on a regional scale right in the district’s footprint.
When told of the district’s proposal, Scherle was elated if also somewhat cautiously optimistic.
“It does say ‘pursuit of..’ but at least they feel confident enough about it there’s a plan, there’s partners that are named, which is great. I just feel this is great news. This is precisely what I have been trying to get people to listen to for five years.”
Scherle said he met with the East Mills school board and representatives from Iowa Western as far back as 2016 with a similar idea for a trade school on the campus but “never heard back.”
“I’m as happy as I could be hearing this now,” he said.
Jan Zanders, president of the East Mills School Board, said there’s been talk of such a project for many years but there’s never really been the right time to proceed. When it was decided the district would pursue the bond to potentially consolidate into a remodeled preK-12 building in Malvern, Zanders said the timing felt right to venture down this path.
She’s “extremely excited” about the project and gives much of the credit to East Mills Superintendent Tim Hood for making it happen.
“He has aggressively pursued different entities and partners that want to come on board,” she said. “Everything has kind of come together in a perfect fit that would allow us to utilize this building.”
The prospect of a regional career center at the elementary school/former Nishna Valley campus is contingent on 60 percent of voter approval. If passed, however, the district is laying out a plan for the facility many voters and business in the community have long favored.
“In the conversations we’ve had at meeting since we came out with the bond referendum, that’s the first question we get asked,” Hood said, referring to the fate of the campus. “Hopefully this helps them (voters) make a decision moving forward. We feel this is a very positive thing for this district and the region of southwest Iowa.”
Hood spearheaded meetings with potential educational partners, including Iowa Western President Dr. Dan Kinney to open a dialogue about furthering and expanding the life of the property.
“He has some experience in these types of regional centers so I invited him to a couple of our meetings,” Hood said of Kinney. “He’s excited about a partnership. The same with IJAG. And we’re excited about having them as a partner too.”
IJAG is a non-profit that connects business and education by providing dropout prevention and school career solutions in Iowa.
East Mills’ plan is in its infancy and light on specifics but it’s believed the regional center would share the buildings’ 76,000 square feet of space as well as equipment and instructors with IWCC while offering a broad range of career and technical offerings and perhaps even career certifications to high schoolers. Area businesses and their workforce needs would be any integral part of any plan moving forward, Hood said.
It’s unclear what capital improvements would be made at the campus or what that would cost. What career and skill training would be available has also yet to be determined.
“The sky is the limit,” Hood said. “I see a lot of companies out there in need of certified welders and that’s just one example of in-demand jobs.”
Hood pictures the facility being used during the days by students and for workforce development and re-training in the evenings. Students from other area high schools would be invited to attend.
While Hood isn’t aware of any districts partnering with both IWCC and IJAG, the Clarinda Community School announced in May it was working with IWCC on the creation of a joint career and technical training center of its own.
Scherle, the undecided voter, has long favored an education approach that eschews the traditional classroom for more “trade” friendly teaching that turns out skilled, immediately employable “kids who produce,” he said.
“The old concept of education where you build a concrete box and put a bunch of drones in there, that’s old school. This is what’s happening. This is the future.”
He hopes the program can stem the tide of more than 150 students that opt out of the East Mills school district each year and instead keep them and their educational dollars home.
“We’re not going to have to worry about 150 kids leaving the district,” he said. “We’re going to pull a 150 kids in.”
Hood confirmed East Mills has 150 students opting out to other districts, for a variety of reasons. But he adds “about 50 students” opt-in to East Mills for a net loss of 100 students.
“There are districts throughout the state of Iowa that for whatever reasons are either plus or minus of open enrollments in or out,” Hood said. “I don’t know how many years ago the trend started but we’re going to do everything we can to level that trend off and get it moving back to a positive at East Mills.”
That’s music to Scherle’s ears.
“If they can make this work, this is going to be the hottest thing in the world, turning out kids who have jobs and trades,” he said. “They’re going to take the bored kids sitting in class staring at the ceiling wondering what they’re going to do with their lives and this will be a magnet kids will want to come to.”
Does that mean Scherle’s is no longer among the undecided?
“If I have to vote yes to get Nishna Valley vacated from that old model to get in a new concept of education with partners down here, I’m 100 percent on board.”