FARGO — Local leaders urged Cass County legislators in a virtual meeting on Tuesday, March 2, to re-insert state funding for workforce academies across the state in what so far is a $680 million bonding bill.

The multimillion-dollar Cass County academy project will involve the school districts of Fargo, West Fargo, Northern Cass, Central Cass and North Dakota State College of Science. It has strong support from local government and area businesses looking for more trained workers to step into jobs.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, West Fargo Mayor Bernie Dardis and Cass County Commission Chairman Chad Peterson urged the state senators attending the meeting to add funding for the academics back into the bonding bill. The North Dakota House removed the funding from House Bill 1431, the state's bonding bill, on Feb. 19 on a 74-14 vote.

It's expected to undergo more changes in the Senate, but state Sen. Kyle Davison, R-Fargo, said he wanted to first see what the new state revenue forecast will be on March 16.

In a statement, state Rep. Brandy Pyle quipped that "the Senate always wants to spend more money than the House."

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State Sen. Judy Lee said bonding bills aren't new to the state as they were done before the oil boom in western North Dakota. During the oil boom, she said, money was flowing to pay for statewide projects, rather than having to borrow.

With interest rates so low on borrowing currently, she said, "important projects" shouldn't be left out.

The bonding bill will draw on earnings from the state's $8.2 billion oil tax savings account, known as the Legacy Fund, to pay back the bonds to investors in 20 years or fewer.

The proposal not only left out funding for technical education but also public building restorations that were tucked into the original blueprints.

With the estimated $9 million proposed in the original bonding bill for the Cass County facility, a more complete facility could be built in the $30 million range, Mahoney said.

So far, numerous units of government have designated money for the project, including just last week when the U.S. Department of Commerce and its Economic Development Administration announced that $1.5 million in CARES Act recovery assistance funds will be going to support construction of the academy.

The grant, which is going to the NDSCS Foundation to build the academy that it will eventually own, will be pooled with millions of private and public sector dollars to make the project happen.

Organizers originally hoped to raise about $15 million from public funding and about $15 million in private donations.

About $11 million in private dollars has been pledged.

Other governmental unit pledges have included $1. 5 million from Fargo, $600,000 from West Fargo, $5 million from Cass County and $1 million from the Fueling Our Future business organization.

NDSCS President Dr. John Richman said in an interview on Wednesday that the state funding would help NDSCS and its K-12 partners to "complete the project to the level it needs to be."

Richman said workforce academies they have studied from around the nation are "a proven model."

"There's no silver bullet" to workforce development, he said, but "they (the academies) have been shown to make a significant improvement."

"Workforce drives economic development," he said, adding that all of the partners so far know they'll see a return on their investment.

"It's been a pleasure to see the collaboration and understanding on what could happen with this academy," he said

He hopes by the end of the session that state funding will be restored not only for Cass County, but for planned academies statewide.

Mahoney noted other cities in the state would also like to see workforce academies developed, including Dickinson and Minot.

Richman said the academy would not only serve K-12 schools, but high school graduates working on their associate's degrees and New Americans. It could help retrain unemployed older adults during the pandemic, he added, as well as members of the current workforce who need additional training.

He sees a long-term partnership with the private sector in providing internships, developing a curriculum, arranging employee classroom visits and providing options for students.

Richman said the academy would be separated into spaces organized around career clusters of agriculture, transportation, construction, finance, marketing, information technology, health care and manufacturing.

It was noted that county school districts and NDSCS would fund the operational costs of the facility, estimated at $600,000 a year. The academy would be built in a newly annexed area of far southwest Fargo near Hickson.