FARGO — Cass County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday, Jan. 21, to continue looking into supporting a proposed career workforce academy, but most commissioners questioned whether it's the county's role to invest its taxpayer funds in an education project.
The academy has procured nearly half the $30 million needed to begin construction at 45th Street South and 64th Avenue South, southwest of Fargo in Cass County. Backers of the academy have asked the county to provide the remaining $15 million.
“I don’t know if I have enough information to make an informed decision,” Commissioner Chad Peterson said. “I think school is super, but that’s where my interest stops. For the second biggest expenditure in the history of Cass County … you thrust upon the county commission at the last minute, but we don’t know anything about education.”
Commissioner Ken Pawluk thought the matter should be brought to voters in the form of a bond issue referendum. “I’m in favor of the concept, but I’m not going to raise taxes,” Pawluk said.
The academy would cooperate with local schools and would be open to K-12 students and anyone else interested in learning a trade.
In what Fargo Public Schools Career & Technical Education Director Denise Jonas described as a “perfect storm,” with the world changing faster than what public education can offer students, she defended the career workforce academy by saying it’s a community solution to a community problem.
Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said the academy is not just to offer students a trade, but it's an attempt to change the current system and culture behind education. “The world has changed so rapidly, so schools too must change,” Gandhi said.
Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick told commissioners the county could legally invest in the academy if the project would further job development in the county.
“Public money is supposed to be used for public purposes,” Burdick said. “But counties can have a role in economic development. All of that put together I think you can do this if you want to.”
Representatives from Sanford Health, Microsoft and the Home Builders Association of Fargo-Moorhead, along with West Fargo Mayor Bernie Dardis, spoke before the commission in support of the project.
Dave Anderson, of Sanford Health community relations, said the hospital is the largest employer in the area. “It can’t be overstated that we have a workforce shortage,” Anderson said.
Dan Lindquist, of the Home Builders Association, said his industry can no longer keep up with demand, and his generation of skilled workers will soon be retiring. “The lack of skilled labor has been a national issue for the past 10 years,” Lindquist said.
Dardis told commissioners the "workforce has been the discussion that continues to go on and on and on.”
“Now we are so close. This is an issue we’ve talked about long enough, and you have a stronger coalition than you have ever had here today,” Dardis said.
Commissioner Rick Steen didn’t believe that supporting the academy was outside the county’s objectives.
“I don’t think the county is taking over the role of education if it benefits the entire region,” Steen said. “But I would be hard pressed to hand over $15 million today.”
Commissioner Mary Scherling expressed doubts, wanting more information and to investigate other alternatives such as the possibility of using a vacant building for the academy.
“You’ve got a great concept here, but it needs to be ironed out a little better,” Scherling said. “I struggle with this if it’s a job for the county because, frankly, I don’t want to get in the way of schools.”