Classes such as “Dealing with Anger in the Workplace,” “Surgical Technology” and “Beginning Highland Bagpipes” are not typical curriculum for most schools, but a center in the Columbia Public School District offers these and more and — with voter blessing — is looking to expand.
The Columbia Area Career Center provides programs for adults and secondary education students interested in developing their education through specialized classes and services. Large growth in the past decade will make the Career Center the recipient of $4 million for construction if the coming bond issue is approved.
The $22.5 million bond issue on the April 6 ballot requires 57 percent of Columbia voters to agree to extend the debt payment portion of their taxes to the school district for another three years. The current tax rate will not increase.
“If you can see it, touch it, if it is something that will be around for a while, that is probably something covered by the debt-service portion of taxes,” said Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, describing how bond issue money goes only toward physical components of district operations.
Although the new Career Center construction exists only on paper right now, it would be a visible, touchable addition to the district. The $4 million would cover phase one of a master plan of construction, developed in January by a task force formed last spring.
The first step
Phase one is a health science wing that would be constructed next to the Career Center. The wing would have seven classrooms, five laboratories, a lecture hall, a student lounge and space for offices. It would be connected to the existing building during phase two. Don Bristow, director of the Career Center, said enrollment growth has prompted the need for the wing.
Enrollment in the secondary program has gone from 911 students in 1994 to 2,040 this year.
“We’ve more than doubled enrollment in the past 10 years, and we’re up 30 percent in the last four,” said Bristow. “There’s been a steady growth in the past several years.”
Last year’s adult enrollment, however, was the lowest it’s been since 1992. The average over the past decade has been between about 9,000 and 10,000; in 2003, enrollment was at 7,549 — part of a decline that started in 2000-01, according to Career Center figures.
Bristow said there are multiple reasons for the decline in numbers.
“Economically, the last three years have been harder for people, and that always is a factor in adult enrollment,” he said.
High numbers in previous years (for example, 14,359 in 1997-98) were due to corporate training done at the Career Center. Maturation of computer knowledge in the past few years is also contributing to the drop.
“There used to be a bigger demand for computer classes on programs like Word and Excel and Windows,” he said. “We still offer those classes, but there is not near the level of need for classes as when these programs were new.”
Bristow said new competition for adult education, from programs such as “MU in the Evening” and those at Moberly Community College, also contributes to lower numbers.
Even with this decline of adult enrollment, growth of secondary students and limited space still provide problems for the Career Center — problems that would be helped by new construction.
“Currently our adult health and science classes are off-site,” Bristow said. “The new laboratory (wing) would incorporate adults onto our campus so we could have both programs under one roof.”
Bristow estimated that if the bond issue passes, construction would start in the summer of 2005 and facilities probably would open for the fall of 2006. He hasn’t considered funding options for the new wing other than revenue from the bond.
“I’ve never heard of Columbia not passing a bond issue,” he said.
Questions to expansion
Henry Lane, a candidate for the Columbia Board of Education election and a retired auditor, does not view the fact that Columbia has passed every bond issue since 1992 in a positive light and is against the current bond issue.
“There is no doubt that the Career Center is an important part of the school district and the community,” Lane said. “But is it really fiscally responsible to be expanding at this time?”
He acknowledged that the Career Center is especially valuable for secondary students who don’t plan to go to college, but Lane has concerns about the district going further into debt when money is already so tight. He thinks the bond issue should go back to the drawing board and include only essential repairs at this time.
“We’re not only talking about $4 million. Taxpayers will also have to pay interest on this,” he said. “The district just doesn’t have the money, and so they shouldn’t be going out there for more for things that can wait.”
One of Lane’s opponents in the school board race, incumbent Chuck Headley, said he has championed the Career Center since being elected to the board in 1998. Headley said he is happy the center is a focal point of the bond issue, which he supports.
“I’m really pleased the district has put this forward to improve the facility, because basically it’s full,” Headley said. “I hope the community will support the bond and the Career Center, because it’s giving important skills and support to students.”