Plans for vocational school in central Arkansas shaped by county

Plans are underway for a vocational school to open in Saline County by 2021.

Saline County voters had passed a sales tax that will provide money for the Saline County Career and Technical Center, which will be devoted to high school students from the county's six school districts. The center will be about 120,000 square feet and serve approximately 500 students, said Angie Dischinger, Bryant's assistant superintendent of secondary education.

The county bought 27 acres to put the center at the corner of Interstate 30 Service Road and Mountain View Road, said Lamont Cornwell, the executive director of the Saline County Economic Development Corporation.

The center will be in the Benton School District but will be within a mile of the city of Haskell, Superintendent Heath Bennett said.

Officials plan to design the center keeping flexibility in mind, allowing the center to change with the times, Bryant Superintendent Karen Walters said.

The plan is for educators will teach courses in 10 categories, which include health science, nursing and welding.

Jeff Arey, county judge of Saline County, said the 10 categories represent Arkansas' fastest-growing markets and will make the students career-ready once they graduate high school.

"It is the single most important thing we can do to move our county to the future and prepare our kids and our students for their next opportunity," Cornwell said.

In November, Saline County residents passed a three-eighths percent sales tax by about 55 percent of the vote, Arey said. The tax will eventually pay off the bonds for the center.

Stephens Inc. will begin selling the county's bonds in early March after the Saline County Quorum Court passes an ordinance to make final the interest the county will pay on the bonds, said Leigh Ann Biernat, a senior vice president for Stephens. The goal is for the county to use the bond money starting in mid-April after the sales tax goes into effect.

Arey said the county will use the bond money to pay for the center's construction, which he hopes will also begin in April.

The bonds will act similarly to bank loans, said Jack Truemper, a senior vice president at Stephens. Twice a year, the sales tax will pay down interest on the bonds, and yearly the tax will pay off a chunk of the debt. Biernat anticipates that the tax will pay off the loan in about 13 years.

Through this process the county is trying to raise $43 million, Truemper said.

While this will pay for the construction, the school districts will pay for the center's operation, Arey said. The Arkansas Department of Career Education will pay for the staff of at least 15 people, who will come from the College of the Ouachitas, college President Steve Rook said.

The students will get college credit for every class they take at the center. Rook said he hopes the college will eventually be able to use the building to offer night classes to adults.

Benton Superintendent Mike Skelton said that whether students choose to go to college or directly to the workforce, the center "really gives them a leg up."

Skelton called it the most important educational opportunity the county has ever offered.

By pooling their resources, the school districts are able to offer more courses than they ever could have individually, Skelton said.

"Well, for our district, it's going to give us opportunities that we haven't had in the past," said Bennett, superintendent of Haskell, one of the smaller school districts at the center.

In Arkansas, there are 28 secondary area technical centers, which operate similarly to how the Saline County center will work, according to the Career Education Department.

Students will be able to get certificates to begin work while they're at the center, Arey said. He said he thinks this will draw industry to Saline County because the area will have a ready workforce.

Arey heralded Frisco, Texas, as the group's gold standard. Frisco established a vocational school, which was cited as a factor in Toyota's decision in 2014 to build its North American corporate campus in nearby Plano, creating approximately 1,000 jobs in the area.

More than half of Saline County's workforce finds jobs outside the county. Cornwell said that after students graduate from high school, the center will give them the opportunity to find jobs and raise families in Saline County.

"Parents want their kids to get married and stay here, but kids need vital options to be able to do that," Dischinger said.

Community leaders said the career and technology center will provide that option for Saline County graduates.

Metro on 02/03/2019