Florence officials look beyond loss of MCSEC

City officials in Florence are trying to look at positive solutions to losing their facility contract with Marion County Special Education Cooperative starting next fall.

?Our initial reaction (to the cooperative leaving) was one of disappointment,? said Florence Mayor Greg Winn.

The major hit wasn?t so much the number of people employed at the cooperative, he said, but more that it occupied three buildings and MCSEC represented all five school districts in the county?Marion, Hillsboro, Goessel, Centre and Peabody-Burns.

Chris Cezar, executive director for the cooperative, said one of the buildings housed the OASIS (Opportunity, Achievement and Survival in Society) classrooms, one a gymnasium and the third, a metal structure, was for administration.

In total, the cooperative employs about 20 people?13 for OASIS and the remaining seven for administrative and support services.

?It (losing the cooperative) was a point of pride for Florence,? Winn said. ?What I mean is that while we have lost the majority of our educational system to consolidation, we had not lost it all.?

It was also the little things that meant a lot to the community, such as the occupied buildings providing a place for school children to wait for the bus to Marion when the weather was bad.

Most of the students involved in the cooperative?s program stayed in Florence all day, Cezar said.

MCSEC provided all special education needs at the Florence facilities, except for one program in Peabody, which assisted the severely handicapped students.

?All of this being said, the citizens of Florence are a tough and resilient lot and we will come through this experience wiser and even more determined to renew our city?s promise,? Winn said.

Another problem the city will need to deal with soon is maintaining the three buildings.

?It?s difficult to assess costs of material and labor without a tenant for these buildings,? he said. ?Maintaining them for any length of time will be more problematic.?

In the near future, the city council will be talking with constituents about the gymnasium and life-skills buildings.

?I do see this as an opportunity for the citizens of Florence to make their views and desires known to the council,? Winn said.

When the city initially accepted the buildings from USD 408, the council started a fund within the city budget with an initial start of $10,000 for maintenance of the buildings.

?However, in preparation of not having a tenant in the buildings, the council has directed the zoning and planning committee to begin the creation of a marketing plan for Florence that includes an industrial and commercial park,? he said.

As for the gym and life-skills building, Winn said, once the cooperative has officially informed the city it is vacating the buildings, the city will begin the process of preparing the buildings for sale or lease by another tenant.

?In the interim,? Winn said, ?we will be pursuing possible grants and other avenues that will allow the city to keep the gym and life-skills buildings.?

The current population of Florence is between 625 to 680.

?We have a number of ranch and agri-businesses located in and around Florence,? Winn said. ?We could always, gladly use more businesses and are open to helping them develop a plan.?

Even with the financial challenges in small towns, Florence wants to continue working with its neighbors in providing services that can somehow be preserved.

The move from Florence to Marion will be done in phases, Cezar said, with the primary deadline being to move OASIS to Marion by fall.

?We are concerned that we are going to leave vacant facilities in Florence,? Cezar said. ?We also need to do what?s best for our students, and Marion is better suited for that.?

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