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Wright County News

Posted on: January 26, 2024

WTC in the Fight of Its Life at This Year's Legislative Session

For more than 50 years, the Wright Technical Center in Buffalo has been a cooperative vocational training school currently comprised of eight school districts (Annandale, Big Lake, Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose, Delano, Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted, Maple Lake, Monticello and St. Michael-Albertville) that teaches trades to high school juniors and seniors. These students get a career start in fields including early childhood and elementary studies, construction, health science, auto repair, welding, horticulture, law enforcement/emergency medical responders, cosmetology and graphic communications.

On Jan. 19, a delegation of Minnesota State Senators from the Capital Investment Committee, including the committee chair Sandra Pappas and vice-chair Susan Pha were joined by Wright County legislators – Representatives Joe McDonald and Marion Rarick and Senator Bruce Anderson – to tour WTC in what may be the last hope to keep the school operational.

WTC opened in 1972 and has housed more than 30,000 students over the last half-century. But, with the school falling into disrepair with structural and safety concerns, WTC is asking the State Legislature for $9.5 million in state bonding money for maintenance and modernization because, if it can’t get the funding, it will be the end of an era not just for WTC, but the State of Minnesota.

“If we don’t get the bonding bill through, I don’t believe that this school can continue,” Rarick said. “This is the last school in the entire state of Minnesota that is a high school alternative technical school. We used to have 65 of them and now Wright Tech Center is the only one left. If this fails, then there will be a lot of students in Wright County that won’t get this education. Not only does industry need it, but the kids need it. They need the hands-on experience that is very difficult to get in high schools. This school is a model for Minnesota and if the bill fails, it’s really a tragedy for the whole state.”

A critical issue facing WTC and its 725 students is the same problem that has seen the other 64 vocational cooperatives in the state close their doors – the inability to levy or bond. School districts have levy authority and can bond for improvements or repairs, but because the students are part-time at WTC in a cooperative, they don’t have that ability.

In the early-1970s, WTC set up a funding formula for the participating school districts to help cover expenses, but the funding source is tight and WTC can’t get the money needed from member school districts to complete the infrastructure improvements.

Of the 30,000 students that have gone through the WTC programs, many of them remain in Wright County, working in the construction, automotive, nursing and cosmetology industries to name a few. Among them is Wright County Commissioner Jeanne Holland, who was a WTC student in the nursing program and later spent 12 years on the WTC Board of Directors. If anyone has an inside knowledge of the issues facing WTC, it’s Holland. She said the need for state bonding money could mean life or death for WTC and the potential loss of the school would take away career training that the member schools couldn’t provide on their own.

“Going through the state looks like the only way to keep the school open,” Holland said. "They can’t levy or bond for money like other school districts and the cost for repairs to get it where it should be at is too high for them to find a way to come up with that kind of money. The uniqueness of the Wright Tech Center is that the schools in the east side of the county have space constraints to offer these types of programs. The smaller towns like Maple Lake and Howard Lake can’t afford to offer these programs or build the facilities they would need. It serves a need to all the schools, but in different ways.”
 It has been a constant struggle for WTC to survive because, while other states have strongly promoted vocational schools, Minnesota historically has not.

“Schools like this are incredibly important,” Holland said. "I’ve always said that any kid that comes out of the Wright Tech Center and gets a job in the field they chose, every one of them has an opportunity to own their own business. You could own your own excavating company. You could own your own salon. In law enforcement, you could do private security. You could own an auto shop. Everything that is done there sets these kids up to own their own business at some point and we need that. There are so many avenues from the programs offered there that these kids can veer into.”

There is no guarantee that the funding request will be approved by the State Legislature, but given it’s “last school standing” status, there will be those fighting to save WTC in St. Paul during this year’s legislative session. Rarick will be the chief author of the House bill for the bonding request and said time is running out to keep WTC afloat.

“This is the last school of its type still standing and you don’t want it to fail,” Rarick said. "As a co-op school with several school districts, they're fighting an uphill battle because they don’t have levy authority like most school districts have to make improvements or maintain what they have. They’re in a bind right now. They’ve patched and done as many temporary fixes as can be done. If this bonding doesn’t come through, we may have none of these types of schools left, which would be a shame because of its track record and long history of success.”

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