RV training partnership with Dunseith CTE scuttled, for now
RV training partnership with Dunseith CTE scuttled, for now
Community pushback, skepticism undermine program
By Michael Standaert, North Dakota News Cooperative
A partnership between Hoefer RV and a soon-expanding Career and Technology Education center at Dunseith High School has potentially fallen apart due to push back from some in the community against the newly arrived recreational vehicle company.
The partnership would have created the first level two RV technician program at a high school in North America.
It also was meant to be a pipeline for training students so they could directly work for Hoefer RV after training and certification. The pay rate was expected to be $2 higher than the normal starting wage at the facility, according to Charles Hoefer, chairman and CEO of the company.
The biggest losers appear to be students potentially certified to work for a company expected to be a cog for employment in the community.
Caught in the middle is the superintendent of public schools in Dunseith, who has had to walk a tightrope between pushing the program forward at the same time staff at his high school are entwined in disputes with Hoefer.
Lauded by the local government and state officials in mid-2022, the partnership was referenced by Gov. Doug Burgum as one of the state’s accomplishments in an end of the year news release last year, referring to it as a “major workforce step to revitalizing Dunseith.”
Rolette County, where Hoefer RV purchased its facility in early 2022, has the highest rate of unemployment in the state.
The rate hovers close to 9 percent according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, much higher than the three surrounding counties where rates are 2 percent or below.
Things fall apart
In June 2022, a community event was held for the groundbreaking on a new CTE center where the partnership was announced and lauded as a boon for the town.
The situation deteriorated just a month later when William Tuttle of Dunseith left his position at Hoefer RV, where he worked from April to July 2022. Hoefer implies that he was fired and asked to give two-week’s notice; a relative of Tuttle says he left on his own accord after giving that notice.
Shortly after leaving, Tuttle took a job as a business teacher at the high school. Tuttle’s son is employed as a building trades teacher in the CTE program and other relatives also hold positions at the school.
In August 2022, Hoefer RV notified Dunseith Public Schools superintendent David Sjol that it had terminated Tuttle and would not continue a relationship with him.
When first contacted by NDNC in early October, Sjol said Hoefer had pulled out of the potential partnership because he wanted to do all the RV training in-house at his facility.
“We’re just moving in a different direction,” Sjol said. “I believe he’s going to start his own training center.”
E-mails from May 2, 2023 between Sjol, Hoefer and Jessica Tooke – North Dakota Development Fund CEO at the Department of Commerce – however, show discussion between Tooke and Sjol concerning community push back against the partnership.
“As you are aware there is some community pushed (sic) back with the district partnering in any way with the Hoefer Group because of the recent legal action,” Sjol wrote to Tooke in an e-mail that was eventually passed along to Hoefer in a chain of messages.
The recent legal action refers to a lawsuit filed by Hoefer against Tuttle in April. That lawsuit was finally dismissed by Hoefer on Oct. 19.
In those e-mails, Sjol requests documents outlining the due diligence process Commerce conducted on Hoefer before his company bought the Dunseith facility in early 2022.
Sjol told NDNC that Commerce provided the documents, but they were heavily redacted. NDNC has also requested the same due diligence documents from Commerce, but they have not been released at the time of this writing.
Hoefer has been involved in legal tangles in the past related to failed business partnerships and local development disputes when he was CEO of Earthbound RV in Marion, Ind., and later as CEO of Global Caravan Technologies in Indianapolis.
Knowledge of some of those past tangles appears to have fostered mistrust within the community about Hoefer’s intentions and how long the company would last.
That mistrust only appears to have grown over the months as Hoefer’s facility sat mostly idle. No RVs have been produced since he purchased the facility in early 2022.
No further communications appear to have taken place with the school district after Hoefer sent a message to Sjol on May 3, 2023 stating that the plans would be “on hold” until the school system could deliver the program, and that Hoefer RV would transition to in-house training in the meantime.
Hoefer’s message came after Tooke notified him of the due diligence request.
Tracey Laducer, principal at the high school, referred questions about the partnership back to Sjol.
“The (RV) business itself hasn’t picked up,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s starting at all. I’ve seen no action going on at the plant.”
Jimmy Nadeau, who runs the auto body CTE program at the school, said that he could not say exactly why the partnership dissolved, and Career Advisor Bonnie Nadeau, asked if students had expressed interest in RV training, declined to comment.
Hoefer said that no one at the school passed on resumes for students potentially interested in working at the facility or going through the RV training program.
It was his understanding that the program was supposed to have started in January 2023, Hoefer said, but that curriculum certification was never passed by the school to the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education.
“There were never any timelines,” Sjol said. “Everything was being done according to when we were able to do it. We made no promises about anything.”
Wayde Sick, state CTE director, said he was unsure what happened with the RV program and that “the Department has not been involved or kept up to date with this project.”
Sick said that general descriptions about the content of the program were shared with his office, but that he didn’t believe the actual curriculum was passed along.
“A school can offer a program without our approval, that is their choice,” Sick said. “It does need to meet our requirements and be approved by us in order for us to provide funding and additional technical assistance.”
The state CTE department has not provided funding for the center.
Days before the e-mail exchanges this May between Hoefer, Tooke and Sjol, Hoefer was scheduled to speak at an April 27 community event held at the local firehall to talk about the RV training program.
Hoefer said he was warned by someone at the school not to come or there might be a physical confrontation.
The alleged threat came about two weeks after Hoefer filed the initial civil lawsuit against Tuttle related to activities conducted at the Dunseith facility between 2015 and up into the time Tuttle temporarily worked for Hoefer RV. That lawsuit was amended and refiled in August.
Commerce appears concerned enough that it sent Tooke up from Bismarck to replace Hoefer as a speaker at the event.
Asked again later by NDNC about why community pushback potentially sidelined what could have been an important part of improving the workforce opportunities in the area, Sjol said it was related to a woman who “expressed concerns about doing business with Hoefer RV.”
Sjol added that requesting the due diligence report would “be a good piece of evidence to back this district decision to be in a potential partnership with Hoefer RV, should any other public concerns be raised.”
Shayden Akason, deputy director of Economic Development & Finance at Commerce, told NDNC that the failure to advance the RV training program had “undoubtedly made it more difficult for Mr. Hoefer to procure trained workforce.”
Akason added that Hoefer advised Commerce that efforts to more the program forward at the CTE facility “were being sabotaged” but that he wasn’t aware of the details other than what Hoefer provided.
“Having received this information I believe I or others at Commerce suggested that if Mr. Hoefer had exhausted all efforts to stand up the training program and it wasn’t getting anywhere, he may need to focus his efforts elsewhere to get the trained workforce he needs,” Aakason said, adding that those efforts to train workforce couldn’t come to a halt because of the difficulties with the partnership.
The dispute between Hoefer and Tuttle emanates from alleged thefts outlined in the lawsuit against Tuttle, as well as potentially sensitive aerospace and military components and documents discovered during renovations at around the time Tuttle left the company, according to Hoefer.
A U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division team collected over 20 boxes of materials from the facility in June this year and has confirmed an active investigation is ongoing.
Teams from the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Aviation Administration also collected evidence earlier this year, but both agencies declined to confirm or deny any official investigations.
Tuttle had operated a company called Chiptronics Inc. at the facility Inc. while the city owned it after a previous company, Benchmark, moved its local operations to Rochester, Minn., in 2015.
Asked whether being notified about the allegations surrounding Tuttle at that time and whether that factored into decisions about the partnership, Sjol said, “I do not know if Bill (Tuttle) had anything to do with Hoefer’s decision to do his own training on their end. Bill made no difference on our end.”
New CTE center
The partnership was also expected to be part of a new $16.9 million CTE center being built at the school, according to recent school board meeting minutes. It is scheduled to fully open in 2024. Architects from Minot helped design a portion of that building for use for RV tech training.
Much of the funding for the new center appears to come from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) assistance provided under the $190 billion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).
Dunseith public schools received about $7.7 million in ESSER funding in the final round, $3.4 million the previous year, and $800,000 the year before that.
Documentation shows that for the final round of funding, $6.145 million went directly toward school facility repairs and improvements, with the rest to supplemental learning, needs for at-risk populations, and mental health support, as well as $250,000 to staff development.
At least 20 percent of ESSER funding is required to go towards addressing learning loss.
[link to Gov Burgum accomplishments overview https://www.governor.nd.gov/news/burgum-sanford-reflect-progress-and-challenges-during-administrations-sixth-year]
[Link to St. Louis Fed data: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/NDROLE9URN]
Jason Nordmark, publisher and editor of the Turtle Mountain Star in Rolla, contributed to this story.
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A CTE center expansion expected to cost around $16.9 million is still currently under construction at Dunseith High School, with expected opening planned for some time in 2024. Photo Michael Standaert.
Editor’s note: This is the third part in a series of stories about a Dunseith manufacturing facility that has become shadowed in controversy.
Part I: Federal investigators are looking into potentially sensitive aerospace and military components discovered at the site when RV company Hoefer Group began renovations.
Part II: How local, state and federal entities were involved with the company that potentially left those materials behind.
Part III: Issues related to the site have stalled the development of a partnership aimed at training students on recreational vehicle construction.