FARGO — Construction of a career workforce academy southwest of Fargo might have to wait if local and state governments don't act, but the $30 million project — supported by private and public monies — will find a way forward, proponents said.
Slated optimistically for completion in two years, the academy is unique, even revolutionary, according to some. It plans to train kindergartners through high school students and beyond with trade skills the state needs for a stronger economic future, according to John Richman, president of North Dakota State College of Science.
The academy's immediate future is dependent upon a Cass County Commission meeting this week.
“I have heard terms that it is innovative,” Richman said. “The thing that is different is that it is a proven concept that has worked in thousands of places across the country and we are trying to implement here for the first time.”
While the academy has been able to procure nearly half of the needed investment to begin construction at 45th Street South and 64th Avenue South, southwest of Fargo in Cass County, completion of procuring investment for the project is contingent upon a Tuesday, Jan. 21, meeting of the Cass County Commission.
Proponents of the academy hope commissioners will agree to provide about $1 million each year for the next 15 years to match the building costs, but commissioners have said they have many questions on how operations will be paid. Some officials believe the North Dakota Legislature may provide more funding for workforce academies in coming years.
Last legislative session, however, lawmakers rejected a portion of Gov. Doug Burgum’s budget slating $30 million of Legacy Fund earnings to match private funds to create more workforce academies. Trade schools and revamping the current educational system are goals Burgum has supported since his first day in office in December 2016.
The West Fargo School District recently approved a plan to contribute $100,000 annually for the first 10 years for operations and instruction. The Fargo School District is planning on making the same proposal to the Fargo Board of Education soon.
The Moorhead Public Schools Superintendent's office said that because a similar academy is already being built at the old Sam’s Club location, 2800 27th Ave. S., they will not be supporting the proposed Cass County academy.
Northern Cass School District Superintendent Cory Steiner said he's proposed providing $50,000 annually for 10 years, but the School Board has not yet approved.
"But so far, the board has been very supportive," Steiner said.
the Central Cass School District is also reportedly slated to provide $50,000 annually for 10 years. Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said he is “absolutely behind the academy’s creation,” and that he plans to submit the proposal to the school board for approval.
The yearlong negotiation between the Fargo Education Association and the school board over teacher salary increases has no relevance to the academy, Gandhi said.
“These are two independent issues, but this is not related to teachers' salary," he said. "It is just something we have to take to the board for approval."
Fargo School Board Member John Rodenbiker said negotiations pertaining to the academy started years before the negotiations over salary increases for teachers. Additionally, Rodenbiker has not yet seen the Fargo Public Schools proposal yet.
“We’ll need to have a discussion about this at the board level,” he said.
Definitive plans on curriculum, transportation, and other issues won’t be solidified until after a building is constructed, Richman said. NDSCS currently operates a north Fargo campus across the street from the Fargodome, but it would begin in its new location at a kindergarten level to enhance career awareness.
Courses would then move on to enhancing career exploration opportunities in junior high students, and then move to career courses for high school students, Richman said.
“What schools offer now, plus the academy courses, will create greater opportunities,” he said. “A lot of people will put this into improving education, and I don’t disagree with that, but the return on the investment is the economic future of this region.
“We believe that the workforce shortage that exists is at a critical point," Richman added. Move the needle on the workforce, that will move the needle on the economics. It’s really about economic advancement in our region through the workforce.”
Steiner said the region is "a little bit behind" the workforce academy model, which has been around for years. Such a program will help children from kindergarten to high school and beyond, he said, as well as anyone else, including the unemployed or those released from jail, in providing education to better their lives.
"There is a wraparound approach to this that can really be phenomenal," Steiner said. "It will help place less stress on unemployment. I really do believe that if we build it, there will be more than just K-12 that will be impacted in a great way."
West Fargo School District Business Manager Levi Bachmeier said tuition will be charged at the academy, which will help offset school costs. However, since the building plans are still underway, curriculum development is yet to be determined.
“I think the impact that a career workforce academy could have on residents of Cass County is profound and has the potential to change the trajectory of countless students’ lives,” Bachmeier said.
When asked if the West Fargo School District could safely financially support the commitment, Bachmeier said the district's student growth will continue to generate the funds needed, and the academy will also help support the district's space needs as students will have another building to choose to attend.
“Two of the key goals is to develop 21st century learners, a commitment to lifelong learning,” Bachmeier said. “Contribute to society as soon as you graduate. It’s navigating all the political subdivisions and interestingly what has made this messy is also its strength. County commissioners are talking and asking: Does funding a building fit into the scope of a county goal?”
Cass County Administrator Robert Wilson said Tuesday's meeting isn’t about financial commitment, but considering if this is the direction the county wants to go.
“I think the commission at that point will assess the project and the information as it has been presented to them and find out if it is an appropriate project to support financially to a greater extent than they do right now,” Wilson said. “And at least consider providing some additional direction if they want to continue exploring options or if it is beyond the traditional role of county government.”
And what would happen if commissioners deny the support?
"We will continue to pursue our options," Richman said. "Obviously, it will delay the startup, but I have to be hopeful that the Cass County Commissioners will do this. It’s a serious ask. It’s different. I get that it’s different. But that is what we’re trying to do here. We really believe that this will make a difference."
The commission meeting will be held at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Cass County Courthouse.
Forum reporter Wendy Reuer contributed to this story.