What will Grand Forks’ proposed Career Impact Academy cost?

Right now, its backers are focused on one number: $20 million. That includes $10 million they hope to get from the state. In order to get it, they’ll have to match it with another $10 million in community support.

But that money is finite, and much of it will help establish the career center – not keep its doors open.

So where will that money come from?

Eric Ripley is Grand Forks Public Schools’ career and technical education expert, and one of the brains behind the new center. He said the answer is still elusive, and that local leaders will know more in coming days and weeks. But he sketched out a funding model that relies on continuing state support, membership fees from participating area school districts and funding from GFPS itself.

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A good model, Ripley said, is the existing career and tech education program that Grand Forks already has for local students – held in a mixture of online and in-person classes and without a centralized building. In the 2019-2020 school year, he said, it ran on a roughly $700,000 budget, with funding of about $400,000 from the state, $250,000 from Grand Forks Public Schools and $50,000 from a group of participating neighboring districts.

In an average year, he said, roughly 500 students take part in the program, including Grand Forks students, students from nearby districts, and a handful of others attending in the online classes. Rural schools pay into the program in a percentage-fee structure tied to the number of their participating students.

Those numbers and ratios won’t translate precisely to the operating costs of the proposed Career Impact Academy, Ripley said, because – if it is built – the new building will expand and change the program. The seven partner districts, Ripley said, are Larimore, Thompson, Northwood, Hatton Eielson, May-Port CG, Hillsboro and Central Valley. Ripley has not heard any talk those districts would decline to opt in to the new academy project.

All of those factors can shift expenses. But the virtual program helps illustrate that a big chunk of funding can come from outside the district.

“We’re trying to build a couple different budget models,” Ripley said, pointing out that state funding goes up with more participation. “What would be the budget for our programming if the state picks up, on average, 50% of the cost? The level they start at is 40%, and they work their way up. The more districts you have involved, you can actually get all the way up to 100%.”

Ripley said that among those programming costs would be 16 full-time instructor positions slated for the new center; 12 will be relocated from within the district – without replacement in their current roles – leaving four new hires.

“These are all (career tech) instructors. … We have high-quality instructors, we have high-quality students,” he said. Those instructors are teaching in disciplines like health care and beyond, he added, and can be easily transferred into a new, centralized location. “This project is about getting them a high-quality environment.”

When it comes to the building itself, Ripley said ongoing costs could be $0.60 to $1 per square foot on a roughly 60,000-square-foot building, plus costs for the custodial staff to take care of it.

“That’s kind of a range – it depends on what the design of the building is,” Ripley said. “There’s some options before us on doing more on the energy efficiency side on the front end.”

There are other factors for ongoing costs. Ripley acknowledged that a student kitchen might generate revenue, or that companies might rent out available space.

He declined, however, to offer any detailed estimates for a projected budget, or a detailed business plan for the project.

“I want to be accurate with the number I’m providing,” he said. “... As far as putting all (costs) together into a spreadsheet, we’re not there yet.”

Asked in a later conversation if there is an overview of more detailed numbers for the project, Ripley said there is not.

“I’m being as transparent as possible,” he said, inviting the Herald to an upcoming School Board work session, where he said the same numbers he’d provided the newspaper would be heard and discussed by district leaders.

Keith Lund is president and CEO of the local Economic Development Corporation. He said a rising tide – with the new career center’s contribution to the economy – will likely lift the community’s collective boats.

“Growing companies generating more revenue for themselves generate more tax revenues for the community,” Lund explained.

The numbers

But without more precise figures, it’s still hard to say how the CTE program will fit into the budget at Grand Forks Public Schools, and the building’s finances have seen skepticism in recent weeks. Grand Forks City Council President Dana Sande, speaking on Oct. 4, said he was worried about the career academy’s ongoing funding.

This week, though, he said he’s heartened to learn that the state might pick up more of the tab than he’d previously realized. But he’s still worried about adding extra cost burdens to the school district as it continues to balance financial obligations.

“I think whether it’s an ongoing fundraiser – or if it’s perhaps the local taxing entities, the county, the park district, the city – perhaps we all need to help,” Sande said. He pointed out that a statewide drive for new career and technical centers is being led by the state.

So why can’t the state help more?

“I wish the state of North Dakota would pick up 100% of the tab, because it’s a state of North Dakota issue. It’s a workforce issue, it’s an economic development issue … and the state of North Dakota has billions of dollars in the bank,” he said.

The career and technical center has been a darling project of city leaders, earning special focus for months as City Hall, top economic officials and others angle for $10 million in state funding to help make the center a possibility. Those leaders argue the center is a needed way to excite local young people about local jobs – keeping young talent in Grand Forks that might otherwise move to the Twin Cities or to the West Coast.

If it’s built, it would exist somewhere between a trade school and a junior college and a university, helping steer students toward curriculum and careers that match them up with local employers. Research shows that local employers point to a continuing workforce shortage as a central hurdle to their respective growth and also to economic development in the community in general.

The center, as described by the EDC, “will provide learners with real-world, hands-on learning spaces to explore high-wage, in-demand career fields in the Grand Forks region. The academy will offer students specialized training, allowing them to become career ready or college prepared.”

A broad group of community leaders, including those representing the school district and the local Economic Development Corporation, are working under a Dec. 1 deadline to apply for that funding. They’ve since hired Janell Regimbal, a former Grand Forks nonprofit director executive who has since started her own consulting firm, to help coordinate those efforts.

RELATED: Janell Regimbal, Grand Forks nonprofit exec turned consultant, joins push for career and tech center

A likely location for the new center is at the former Grand Forks Inn and Suites, near the corner of Highway 2 and Interstate 29. The building was constructed in the 1960s, but will be demolished by the city as preparations continue for the career center.

RELATED: Grand Forks panel OKs hotel demolition, clearing the way for possible career and tech center

For now, local leaders continue to keep their focus on fundraising the rest of the $10 million necessary for a successful application for state funding. They’ve been helped by a series of significant donations from local businesses, so far led by Altru Health System, which gave a $1 million donation to efforts to raise the full $10 million in matching funds.

Other business contributions have come from Lunseth Heating and Plumbing ($125,000), True North Equipment ($100,000), the Grand Forks Herald ($100,000), C.L. Linfoot ($75,000) and JLG Architects ($50,000). Also, the EDC's board of directors last week voted to put $500,000 toward the project.

Right now, local leaders say, there’s more than $4.5 million accounted for. That total includes a likely $1.7 million real estate donation from the city of Grand Forks and $1 million from the school district, which was paid through the district’s coronavirus aid funding, Ripley said.

RELATED: Altru Health System, Economic Development Corp., True North and JLG make big contributions to proposed Grand Forks Career Impact Academy

“The Economic Development Corporation is involved in this because of the workforce implications,” Lund said. “We see this as very much supporting workforce needs. We interviewed over 117 companies as a result of this effort, and the vast majority of them indicated that workforce (need) is inhibiting their ability to grow.”