The Learning Community Council on Thursday approved construction of a new child and adult education center in north Omaha, calling it a potential game-changer in the battle to raise the academic achievement of poor children.
Approval came on a split vote, with several council members citing “sticker shock” over the estimated $4.6 million price tag.
Building the 20,000-square-foot Learning Community Center of North Omaha will not require a tax increase this year, because the council is covering costs with money accumulated in prior years.
But within two years, a tax hike will be needed, said Brian Gabrial, finance director of the metro Omaha education cooperative that encompasses all of Douglas and Sarpy Counties and part of Washington County.
On a 13-4 vote, council members approved a lease agreement with the Omaha Economic Development Corp., which will serve as developer and owner of the building.
The facility would open in September 2014 to serve impoverished neighborhoods near 24th and Franklin Streets.
Corporation President Michael Maroney said the building could represent “a potential tipping point” in lifting children out of the generational poverty that has frustrated intervention efforts for decades.
“This has the potential to be a gap closer,” Maroney said.
The center will contain classrooms where babies, toddlers and their families will receive what Learning Community officials say will be free, state-of-the-art education and support services.
Kris Carter, a council member representing north Omaha, said past efforts to boost achievement in the primarily black neighborhoods have failed. She said the project will have impact beyond those neighborhoods.
“This is a center for Omaha, because the success of these children affects every single one of us in this room, now and forever,” Carter said.
Ted Stilwill, chief executive officer of the cooperative, said the idea is to provide intensive support to families in a geographically small area.
By intervening at an early age, the hope is to raise achievement and reduce the costs of remedial and special education later on, Stilwill said.
The center will house the administrative staff of the Learning Community and also provide support for intensive preschool classes launched this month for 3- and 4-year-olds at Kellom and Conestoga Elementaries. The center will be within walking distance of the two schools.
Stilwill said the first-year lease payment for the 2014-15 year would be $522,800. The payment would rise to more than $600,000 in the ninth year of the 10-year lease, he said. There are four five-year renewal options.
The ongoing programming costs will come on top of that. Stilwill said he hopes the Learning Community can work with other entities to share those costs.
Council member Mike Pate, who serves on the Millard school board, called the project “pretty rich.” Pate said his district has built elementary schools for about 25 percent less cost per square foot.
Martha Slosburg, a council member, said her research on similar projects shows the center’s costs were “not just somewhat high, but they are astronomical.”
John Lund, chief executive officer of the Lund Co., which will manage the property, said it’s possible that initial cost estimates can be reduced substantially as detailed plans are drawn up.
The council, during the same meeting, voted to keep Learning Community tax rates unchanged for the 2013-14 budget year.