Four site locations for a new career and technical education center in Grand Forks will be reviewed as part of an application for funding from the state, said Eric Ripley, executive director of career and technical education and technology for Grand Forks Public Schools.

The 2021 North Dakota Legislature approved $70 million, a portion of the federal CARES Act infrastructure package, for career and technical education centers. Ripley serves on the steering committee – with representatives from secondary and post-secondary education, business and industry – that is hoping to obtain up to $10 million of that funding for a new CTE center in Grand Forks. The funds requested must be matched by cash or in-kind contributions from public and private sources.

The proposed sites are: the vacant Grand Forks Inn and Suites, formerly the Holiday Inn – an “infill development” project – which would be demolished; a retrofitted facility, such as the former Sears store; an addition to Red River High School; and the Industrial Park, where a new building could be built, Ripley said. The facilities subcommittee has recommended these sites to the steering committee, which supports them for future consideration, he said.

Each location will be evaluated by the facilities subcommittee based on a “pretty extensive” rubric – including factors such as cost, the opportunity to expand if needed, and the ease of student access, Ripley said.

The facilities subcommittee is one of five groups working on aspects of the grant application. Others are governance and budget, industry engagement, curriculum, and public engagement.

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A request for proposals, or RFP, seeking architectural services for the center will be advertised by the school district for three weeks, with the goal of creating blueprints to submit with the application.

“The more detail and the more boxes that are checked, obviously, the stronger the application,” Ripley said.

The grant application must be submitted by a local school district or a consortium of school districts, Ripley said. But, in Grand Forks, other entities – the Grand Forks Region Economic Development, the city, Chamber of Commerce, businesses, industry and post-secondary institutions – also have important roles to play in crafting it.

“The nice thing is, this has been a collaborative community project, with lots of stakeholders involved and that lends itself to a successful application,” Ripley said.

Competition for funds

Grand Forks will be competing with at least eight other communities – Bismarck, Dickinson, Fargo, Jamestown, Mandan, Mayville, Watford City and Williston – and possibly others for these funds, which will be awarded in two rounds of $35 million each. The first deadline is Oct. 1 and the second is Dec. 1.

Some steering committee members have visited CTE centers in Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota, gleaning insights on aspects such as “scheduling and what programs were selected and why they were selected,” Ripley said.

“Our center will be unique to Grand Forks,” he said. Priorities include creating “flexible spaces and the ability to adapt to programs throughout time,” he said, noting that the center should be designed to provide training for jobs that don’t yet exist.

All applications will be evaluated by a committee, headed by the director of the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education, on the basis of a set of criteria that has been formulated by that department. Members will include state leaders in education, workforce development and commerce.

State Sen. Ray Holmberg, of Grand Forks, who chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said, “We want to make sure it’s a team effort.”

In dedicating $70 million for career and technical education centers, legislators envisioned a broad range of involvement at the local level.

“From the state perspective, the concept was the school districts and the communities (working together),” Holmberg said. “It has to be a combination of school and the community in order to cover what needs to be done.”

The overarching goal is “to get students in a good position for after high school – whether for the workforce or college,” he said. “And also for people who are not high school-age who need skills.”

“Some communities have been working on this for a while,” Holmberg said, noting the development of CTE centers in Fargo and Bismarck. “In most cases, you’ll see the school district taking the lead.”

The commitment of these funds “is something that needed to be done,” based on the realization that “we were falling behind” in training workers, Holmberg said. And “we had the opportunity, particularly with federal money, to fund this.

“Now it’s up to the local regions, the school districts, et cetera, to follow the guidelines that the state CTE (department) has put together.”

‘Aggressive timeline’

Becca Cruger, workforce development manager with the Grand Forks EDC, in a presentation to the Grand Forks School Board on Monday, July 26, said, “If we don’t act on this, Grand Forks would be one of the only communities in the state to not have a CTE center.”

Several leaders – including school district Superintendent Terry Brenner and EDC President and CEO Keith Lund – have stressed the need to move quickly to meet the Oct. 1 application deadline.

“It’s an aggressive timeline for sure,” Ripley said. “The intention of the committee is to work toward that. It’s not the preferred timeline, but we’re going to get there.”

However, “we don’t want to submit an incomplete application,” he said. As October nears, if it appears that more work is needed, the decision may be made to submit before the Dec. 1 deadline.

“There’s a lot of excitement about this, a lot of passion,” Ripley said. “It’s the largest infusion of dollars for infrastructure (for CTE) since the 1970s. ...

“People say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I would say it’s once in a professional career. I feel like we’re on the Interstate, driving 100 miles an hour.”