Academics, Elections, Local, Park Forest, Schools

Is the Southland Career & Technical Education Center on Track? District 227 Superintendent Provides Assurances

name oand logo of school
(SCTEC website)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- At a forum on February 23 at the Richton Park Library, candidates running for the Rich Township High School District 227 board responded as to whether they supported building the Southland Career & Technical Education Center (SCTEC) on the site of the former Rich East High School.

Of the six candidates present (one candidate was absent), the majority were either unaware of the project or had very limited information about it. Only Andrea Bonds, the current board president who is running for re-election, was able to explain the project in any detail and why it was important for the community.

What is the SCTEC?

As background, the plan is for SCTEC to be a career and technical vocational center to help high school students in the south suburbs prepare for advanced technology occupations such as construction manager, carpenter, plumber, and electrician. Six area school districts support the initiative. These six signed inter-governmental agreements: Rich Township District 227, Bloom Township District 206, Homewood-Flossmoor District 223, Southland College Prep Charter School District 162, Speed SEJA District 802, and Prairie State College District 515. Other south suburban school districts may join the consortium in the future, subject to the approval of their boards.

Rich East High School, REHS, School District 227
Rich East High School in Park Forest, which closed in 2020, is the proposed site of the SCTEC. (Photo eNews Park Forest)

Plans for the SCTEC call for the building of a new facility on the site of the former Rich East High School on Sauk Trail in Park Forest. The existing structure would be demolished, and a new start-of-the-art facility constructed. The estimated time frame, from final approval to the facility welcoming students, is five years.

Listening to the candidates and their inability to explain a major district initiative, it was easy to think that the SCTEC was an idea going nowhere.

Fortunately, that is not the case, and plans for the SCTEC remain on track. To get the latest information on SCTEC, eNews Park Forest interviewed District 227 Superintendent Dr. Johnnie Thomas for an update on the project.

The Superintendent’s Perspective

photo of school superintendent
Dr. Johnnie Thomas, Superintendent of Rich Township High School District 227 (Photo RTHS)

eNews Park Forest previously reported that Dr. Thomas confirmed that Representative Robin Kelly’s office awarded a $1.74M grant for the initial design of the project. Thomas said that the money has been appropriated. The district should receive the money in the next few weeks.

Once the funding is in hand, the consortium of districts can move forward with hiring an architect to begin the design phase of the project. Thomas noted that they have been working with an architect associated with the design of a comparable state-of-the-art facility in the Dakotas. The consortium hopes to utilize that firm as a consultant to the Illinois architect ultimately hired by the districts following the normal Request for Proposal (RFP) process.

“We continue our efforts to access different state and federal organizations and grants to begin to put the money together to actually make the project a reality for the community,” Thomas stated.

In addition to the $1.74M grant, the consortium submitted an application/proposal last week to Senator Dick Durbin’s office for $10M in funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They are also working with the US Department of Agriculture to secure funds for the agricultural aspects of the SCTEC.

Speaking of the request to Senator Durbin, Thomas said “If we are able to secure the money we are asking for in partnership with Senator Durbin’s office, that will go a long way to beginning to move the process forward and help create some excitement with our private partners.”

Thomas stressed that the construction of the facility itself would not utilize any school district funds, but instead would rely exclusively on federal, state, and private financing.

Why Not Just Remodel the Existing Rich East Building?

Why propose a new facility rather than remodel the existing Rich East building? Thomas stated that the cost estimate received for remodeling and updating the building was $96M versus the estimated $100M to construct a new facility. The new facility would ensure students would have a modern and structurally sound building for many years to come.

Once ISBE issues the third approval, the SCTEC will become a “Career Academic Center,” which opens an additional source of funding from the state.

Areas of Study Expand

Thomas noted that, based on input from local business owners and operators, there is a new area of study for SCTEC’s original curriculum: Logistics and Supply Chain Management. This area joins the six programs previously announced: construction trades, manufacturing trades, aviation, public safety, urban agriculture, and information technology.

Working in conjunction with Prairie State, the SCTEC will also provide continuing education classes to those already in the workforce.

While the six education districts involved committed to the project, Thomas stressed the need for wide community acceptance and support for the SCTEC. “We need to come together as a south suburban community. We think we can design something that would be one of the best opportunities for our children in the country. The more we can stay together and work in unison, the more likely it is to happen.”

Educating the Candidates

Regarding the inability of some candidates to address the SCTEC question in the forum, Thomas noted that the District 227 leadership team held a meeting with board candidates and reviewed all the district’s ongoing initiatives and plans. Because he understood that there was some misunderstanding about the SCTEC project and how it would be funded, it was reviewed in detail during that meeting. Thomas said that providing such overviews has been the standard practice for all board elections held in the six years he has been superintendent.