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Indiana County districts asked to commit funds, students for STEM facility

| Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, 8:09 p.m.

Seven school districts in Indiana County are being asked to make a combined capital investment of $2 million to help the proposed county STEM Academy and Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center take flight.

At this month's school board meetings, two local districts got an accounting of what their shares of the cost would be, based on the number of students each sends to the Indiana County Technology Center.

Blairsville-Saltsburg School District received a request for $322,600, representing 16.13 percent of the total. A commitment of $172,600, or 8.63 percent, is sought from Homer-Center School District.

Eric Palmer, recently promoted to executive director of the Indiana County Technology Center, told Blairsville-Saltsburg and Homer-Center school directors in respective Sept. 16 and 17 meetings that the seven districts' proposed investments would leverage a much larger combination of funding from other sources to pay for the combined STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) academy and Challenger Center — representing 22 cents on the dollar.

ICTC has committed $600,000 from its adult education funds toward the estimated $9 million cost of the facility, which is to be constructed as an addition to the existing ICTC building.

ICTC also expects to perform some of the necessary work for the project with a value equaling $35,259 while receiving an in-kind contribution of equipment worth $125,000.

In addition to the investment from the school districts, Palmer also is counting on $1 million in federal grants and $1.25 million in contributions from foundations and corporate sources to supplement $4.6 million already secured and to meet the grand total for the project.

The money already secured includes the adult education funds, $120,000 in various cash donations to the project, a Pennsylvania Department of Education line item allocation of $600,000 and two amounts — $1,35,000 and an additional $2 million — set aside from the state's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RCAP).

While indicating that there is no specific deadline for use of the RCAP funds, Palmer cautioned that, without some progress — through local commitment to development of the center, the state dollars might be shifted to other projects that are ready to begin construction.

Palmer said project planners have been in contact with potential corporate sponsors, but those companies want to see local commitment to the center before investing their private resources in the facility.

Palmer planned to repeat his presentation for each of the seven local school districts by next month and asked that school boards vote on their commitment to the project at upcoming meetings.

Among area school directors who have yet to hear the presentation are those who sit on the United School Board. United is being asked to contribute $207,200 toward the $2 million capital investment.

Other requested district contributions include $722,800 from Indiana Area, $278,000 from Marion Center; $150,000 from Penns Manor and $146,800 from Purchase Line.

Palmer said to make the project feasible and to justify state and private investment in the facility, on top of the capital investment, the seven local districts also are being asked to send a minimum number of students to the STEM academy in its initial years of operation and to schedule a minimum number of “missions” by larger groups of students at the Challenger center.

Blairsville-Saltsburg is being asked to initially send six students in grade 11 and 12 to the STEM academy at an annual tuition of $8.500 per student, for a total cost of $51,000. It is also expected to book nine Challenger missions for students in grades 3-8 at a cost of $750 per mission, totaling $6,750.

For Homer-Center, the requested initial commitment is enrollment of four students in the STEM academy, at tuition totaling $34,000, and six Challenger missions, at a cost of $4,500.

Vicki Smith, who is president of Homer-Center School Board, chair of ICTC's Joint Operating Committee and a member of a committee of representatives from multiple districts that has been promoting the Challenger/STEM project, pointed out to her fellow Homer-Center school directors that nearly $2.4 million in RCAP funds must be applied toward the Challenger Center portion of project. Without inclusion of that center, which is expected to serve students from a 22-county region, Smith indicated the STEM academy, which would serve just the seven local school districts, would not be possible.

The Central Allegheny Challenger Center would join more than 40 such facilities licensed to provide STEM educational experiences through simulated space missions. Local planners have said one of the primary focuses would be getting middle-school students excited about science- and math-related careers, with the STEM academy providing them the opportunity to prepare for such careers at the high school level.

Rodney Green, a former school administrator who is serving as an educational consultant for the STEM academy project, said planners have proposed using the nationally recognized Project Lead The Way program to structure course offerings at the local STEM facility.

He said the program is expected to meet all of Pennsylvania's Common Core educational standards.

As proposed, students attending the STEM academy would select one of three career-oriented “pathways” to pursue — energy, applied science and engineering technology or bio-medical/health care — taking a series of related courses over their two final years in high school.

At the Blairsville-Saltsburg meeting, school director Beverly Caranese expressed concern that students whose interests might lie outside the three proposed pathways would be excluded from benefiting from the STEM facility. She noted that in some areas the STEM concept has been expanded to STEAM, adding courses for those pursuing arts-related careers.

Fellow B-S board member Mary Whitfield said she agreed that including arts offerings would be a welcome enhancement of the STEM programming.

Green said the three pathways were selected as being the most likely to prepare students for local job markets. He indicated local industry professionals have volunteered to work with the STEM advisory board to make sure the course offerings continue to have validity in terms of workforce development.

He said, if attendance at the STEM academy grows as hoped, additional pathways might be added. Meanwhile, the noted that the capstone course students would take in their senior year at the academy is more of an independent study effort that could be tailored to mesh with their individual interests.

At the Homer-Center meeting, school director Gerald Bertig expressed concern that the district was being asked to make a capital investment exceeding those of some other local districts that have greater financial resources at their disposal.

Smith pointed out that each district's proposed investment was based on the number of students it sends to the ICTC, not on the district's own student enrollment.

Palmer indicated the financial commitments were calculated just as they would be if the districts all pitched in to fund a construction or renovation project for the existing ICTC building.

Smith added that the Challenger/STEM project would include some enhancements that would benefit the existing ICTC facility and programs.

Palmer said planners have used realistic figures in preparing a construction and operating budget for the Challenger/STEM facility for the first three years of operation. He noted the plan for the layout of the building is just in the concept stage, with more specific engineering and design work needed before it would be ready for construction.

While the interior of the Challenger simulator would conform to the latest design for the licensed facilities, Green recommended that the seven districts form a STEM advisory board to agree on design elements for the academy portion of the building as well as on course offerings.

The Challenger Center is intended to be self-sustaining and would operate with its own independent staff. Green said the advisory board would likely decide how to staff the STEM academy.

As envisioned, the new addition to ICTC campus in White Township would include 10,000 square feet for the Challenger Learning Center and 20,000 square feet for the STEM academy.

Palmer said, if the local districts opt not to commit the requested level of funding, one option might be to scale back the facility, reducing the project budget. But, he said, if any of the districts fails to commit to sending students to the facility and providing some level of funding, the project likely would no longer be feasible and funds provided by remaining districts would be returned.

He noted that, if the seven core districts immediately surrounding the center aren't willing to use it, it diminishes the chances of attracting student from outlying areas to visit the Challenger simulator.

Concerns about the local costs associated with projects such as the Challenger/STEM facility were expressed by Dan McGregor, consultant for a committee of Saltsburg residents that is working with the Blairsville-Saltsburg school board and state Rep. Joseph Petrarca on a plan to divide the school system into two independent districts — one each for the Saltsburg and Blairsville halves of the existing district.

He asked the school board not to make “spendthrift” financial commitments as the debt incurred by Blairsville-Saltsburg will have to be split between the two separate districts if the division — which requires action by the state legislature — would come to fruition.

Palmer noted, depending on their individual financial situations and existing debt levels, all or some of the seven districts could consider participating in a joint financing effort to meet their proposed $2 million capital investment in the project.

He noted some districts might choose to simply draw upon their own capital reserves to meet the requested financial commitment.

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or jhimler@tribweb.com.

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