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Heitkamp fires campaign staffer amid ad fallout; some women considering legal action

Commentary: Something seems fishy in Wahpeton

columnist Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman has long been desirous of further expanding his campus from Wahpeton, where it is mandated by the state constitution to reside, into Fargo.

Many, including this observer, feel the hiring of former state lawmaker and current Fargo City Commission member Tony Grindberg to work at NDSCS was a part of Richman's campaign.

That the Flint Group, a firm which employs Grindberg's wife, was hired to consult on the expansion also seems something more than coincidence.

Last year, a divided State Board of Higher Education voted 5-3 to give Richman the authority to seek private funding for a workforce academy in Cass County. One dissenting board member, however, didn't like the way the vote was done.

Kathy Neset argued that approving Richman's request wasn't on the board's agenda. She also expressed dismay, in an email to Chancellor Mark Hagerott I obtained, over Richman's "utter disrespect" and "condescending" tone toward the board.

Now Richman and his institution are under scrutiny from auditors who are investigating whistleblower complaints.

The concerns "involve finances, space utilization and TrainND, a workforce training program provided by four state colleges, including the North Dakota State College of Science, which is based in Wahpeton and has a satellite campus in Fargo," Patrick Springer of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reported earlier this month.

The question of space utilization caught my eye. Any time a state facility looks to expand officials, very prudently, initiate a study of how that institution is using their current space.

In 2015 the North Dakota University System, at the behest of lawmakers evaluating expansion projects, initiated a space utilization study.

The results were not flattering for NDSCS. The study found the institution with a classroom utilization rate of just 22.6 percent, by far the lowest in the university system. The lab utilization rate was at just 37.3 percent, the second lowest in the system.

Yet, by 2016 another space utilization study found those numbers much improved. Classroom utilization was up to 46.5 percent, while lab utilization was at 93.6 percent.

How did that happen? It wasn't enrollment growth. From fall of 2015 to fall of 2016 enrollment at NDSCS grew by just 34 students.

It seems the improved numbers were achieved through other means.

According to records I obtained from the university, some classrooms were reclassified as storage space. One lab was turned into a book store location. Some classrooms were removed from the counts altogether because they adjoined a lab. Both lab and classroom were counted as one space.

All of these contributed to NDSCS, at least on paper, having much better utilization of their current space. Thus bolstering Richman's case for an expanded campus in Fargo.

But some, including personnel at the college who have spoken to me on condition of anonymity, see things differently. They see their campus leaders as cooking the books to achieve something unnecessary for the school's mission.

Who has it right? Hopefully the audit tells us.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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