Marion board will resist relocation move

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
In a special meeting Friday, the USD 408 Marion-Florence Board of Education declared it will not support the relocation of the Marion County Special Education Cooperative from facilities the district owns in Florence.

The board agreed moving the program would not be in the best interest of USD 408 constituents.

“The concern we probably all have is the perception it gives to the patrons-particularly in Florence, but also the district as a whole-that after our own facility bond issue passed, we now want to stab Florence in the back by abandoning the operation there and moving it to Marion,” said Rex Savage, board president.

“We absolutely cannot have that perception out there because it does not have one iota of truth in it.”

The USD 408 board expressed concern that MCSEC board has paid $7,000 to a consultant to explore the feasibility of building a new facility in an alternate location-and then recently found out that preliminary plans for a new facility were already part of the agenda packet for MCSEC board meeting scheduled for July 17.

“(MCSEC board members) need to be aware of what our opposition is before they go into another meeting that takes them further down this road,” said USD 408 board member Keith Collett.

Unanimity required

A clause in the Interlocal agreement that created MCSEC states the cooperative cannot acquire property without the unanimous approval of all five member districts: Marion-Florence, Hillsboro, Peabody-Burns, Centre and Goessel.

The Marion-Florence board agreed Friday it would vote against a recommendation to acquire property for a new facility.

“We need to make it very clear that we have no intention of participating in a new-facilities acquisition for special ed,” Savage said. “We need to let their board know that if they go on, we will not participate-or they can withdraw the motion and settle down and take care of their business at hand.”

At the same time, the USD 408 board agreed that if the other MCSEC board members were convinced building a new facility in a different location was in the best of interest of the program, Marion-Florence will simply withdraw from MCSEC and operate an independent program.

“The question is, do they want to proceed with four districts in a new cooperative, or are they willing to back away from this thing and talk for a moment,” Collett said.

Pre-existing financial concerns

USD 408 board member Lyle Leppke, who was recently appointed to represent the district on the MCSEC board, said he was already concerned about budget projections that suggest MCSEC will exceed its operating income by around $200,000 in each of the next two years.

“There’s grave concern to me as to the budget for special education-not even considering (the cost of financing) a new facility,” Leppke said. “We were at a place where we were talking about the future of the cooperative the way it was, let alone (paying for) a new facility.”

In the end, the USD 408 board armed Leppke with two alternate resolutions. Both were endorsed by the board, but official action on both was tabled.

Both resolutions state Marion-Florence will withdraw from the cooperative if the MCSEC board decides to relocate its program in new facilities.

The second resolution takes the additional step of serving notice that the one-year lease agreement between USD 408 and MCSEC to rent the facilities in Florence would be terminated at the end of the current lease year.

USD 408 will take action on the tabled resolutions once it is notified of the direction the MCSEC board chooses to take on the facilities issue.

Lease fee increase

At the start of its Friday meeting, the USD 408 board clarified its position regarding its decision to increase the lease of the Florence facilities from $3,000 a year to $50,000 a year-a factor that MCSEC director Chris Cezar had cited in the July 12 Free Press as a reason to consider building a new facility.

Superintendent Lee Leiker said the longstanding $3,000 lease fee did not even cover the cost of insuring the facilities. The increase to $50,000 was agreed upon by both parties as a way to address maintenance issues that had been long neglected-in part because it was never clear which party would be responsible for structural maintenance.

Leiker said the district has already undertaken several repair projects, including the roof, heating system, carpet and exterior fascia board.

None of the $50,000 fee will be “profit” to District 408, Leiker said. In fact, because of the size of the district, USD 408 pays in nearly 30 percent of that lease amount from its own budget.

Leiker said on several occasions USD 408 has offered to sell the Florence facilities to MCSEC for the nominal fee of $1, but the offer has been turned down.

Likewise, the district’s offer of a long-term lease of three to four years has been turned down as well.

Collett suggested the MCSEC board can choose from at least three options:

to continue in the Florence facilities as it has;

return to the previous model where its program was scattered throughout the various school districts;

or proceed with the idea of acquiring property to build a new facility in some place other than Marion.

Savage said the USD 408 board is open to conversation on the issue-to a point.

“This is not a door that’s been slammed shut-it is still open to discussion,” he said. “But this does give notice that we are officially on record that if the proposal (to acquire property for a new building) moves forward, we will not be a part of it.”

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