Learning center closed due to block-grant rule

? With the state freezing FTE for two more years, ESSDACK forced to close four centers.

The Marion County Learning Center, located at 107 S. Main in Hillsboro, will no longer be offering services to students seeking a nontraditional learning situation.  Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

Requirements of the state?s block-grant funding plan for schools have led to the closure of the Marion County Learning Center in Hillsboro and similar centers in three other Kansas communities.

The last day for local students was June 1, although the center does not have to vacate its location at 107 S. Main St. until June 30, according to Mike Cook, executive director of ESSDACK, the Hutchinson-based agency that operates the centers in partnership with local school districts.

?I sure hate it,? Cook said of the decision. ?I love Hills?boro. It was a business deal. It had nothing to do with anything but dollars and cents.?

Cook said its learning centers are funded by the state based on full-time-equivalency enrollment. ESSDACK recruits the students, per-pupil state funding is sent to the local school district, which then pays ESSDACK to do the education.

?What happened this year was that we operated that center at a loss,? Cook said. ?So we actually had to take money out of other projects, or other sites, because we operate 17 of these learning centers across the state.?

Centers that make money often subsidize those who don?t make a profit.

?We take money and move it around and make sure they all stay afloat,? he added. ?We?ve done that for years.?

Frozen enrollment

Normally, a center that loses money one year can make it up the next year by enrolling more students. However, under the state?s block-grant plan, FTE funding will be frozen at 2014-15 levels for the next two years.

?If the money is frozen, you just guaranteed a loss for the next two years,? Cook said. ?When we lost money this year, we said we can eat the loss for one year. Can we eat it for two more years? The answer was no.?

Cook said his agency has to consider the financial viability of its many programs.

?We do thousands of different projects for school districts, everything from health insurance to professional development to selling copiers so they can get a better price on them, to printing even,? he said.

?If we would continue to accept that sort of a loss, pretty soon all those other programs start to suffer and pretty soon we?re eating up own selves. We just had to say, this is a tough call.?

Program goals

Cook said learning centers are intended to serve students who don?t fit the traditional education model and need a different way to learn.

The concept began as a performance-based high school diploma program in 1996 in four central Kansas locations. It has evolved and expanded across Kansas.

Sponsoring high schools now use the program as an alternative for traditionally-aged high school students, both as drop-out and recovery. Courses meet the standards of the district issuing the diploma.

Students work at their own pace and set their own goals and timeline. The addition of virtual delivery in 2005 allows for any?where, anytime learning. The addition of a career development component in fall 2006 helps meet long-term goals of students.

The flexibility of the courses allows each student to juggle employment and family responsibilities while earning a diploma.

Local students

So, what becomes of the students who have been using the learning center in Hillsboro?

?We?ll ask those students to either become virtual students, and attend virtually from one of our other sites, or we?ll ask them to physically go up to Herington, to that learning center site,? Cook said.

Students may have another option with the recent decision of the Tech?nology Excellence in Educa?tion Network to create its own virtual school, he added. TEEN began in 1992 through a vision of cooperation among the school districts of Centre, Herington, Hillsboro, Marion and Peabody-Burns.

?We will encourage some of the students to go there,? Cook said. ?I don?t care where they go, I just want them to go somewhere and move forward and get some skills.?

The other three learning centers that are closing are located in Anthony, Macksville and a program for parolees.

Written By
More from Don Ratzlaff
HHS softball seeded third for Class 2-1A state tournament
The Hillsboro softball team received the No. 3 seed at the Class...
Read More