ST. CLOUD - When school district officials started planning to replace the century-old Technical High School in St. Cloud a decade ago, they talked about flexible spaces and learning labs.

For Jen Doom, who had taught science in a traditional classroom with rows of desks facing a chalkboard for 15 years, the concepts felt nebulous.

"We were all like, 'Huh?' We didn't understand any of it, and it felt a little bit daunting," she said of her fellow teachers.

But now, five years after the new Tech High School opened on the south side of the city, she wouldn't want to teach health careers any other way.

The $104.5 million school has changed how teachers like Doom prepare students for the workforce. It has walls of windows that allow students to peer into classrooms, flexible spaces that allow desks and teaching tools like hospital beds to be moved around for better collaboration, plus fabrication labs that are central to the school instead of hidden down dark hallways.

The design was lauded by state education officials when Tech opened in 2019.

"If you ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, what do they say? Teacher — that's what they've been exposed to. Or a firefighter — they see the truck running down the road," Doom said. "If you don't see the spaces that you might one day be working in, how can you even fathom it as a career option?"

But across town, the district's other high school has been left in the past. Apollo High School opened in 1970 and had additions built in 1984 and 1990. Not much has changed since, with the exception of some new carpeting and furniture added in the past few years.

District leaders are hoping to change that but say they need the public's help to do so.

"The question about an Apollo referendum is not 'if,' said Superintendent Laurie Putnam. "We know the need is there. The question is 'when.'"

Attempts to upgrade Apollo in the past decade have been onerous. The district asked voters to approve a $167 million referendum in 2015 to build a new Tech, renovate Apollo and add secure entrances at all schools.

After that failed, the district put two questions before voters in 2016. The question asking voters to build a new Tech passed, but the second question asking for about $39 million to renovate Apollo failed, with about 51.5% of voters saying no.

Administrators then planned for a referendum in 2020 but postponed it because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past few years, the district used about $14 million in one-time pandemic relief funding at Apollo to replace furniture and outdated classroom technology, convert an old wrestling space into an orchestra room, and update the stadium.

And this summer, the district will use about $17 million in long-term facilities maintenance dollars to redo restrooms and flooring throughout the school, renovate the auditorium and finish reroofing the building.

But district leaders say a referendum, likely in 2025, is needed to finish the upgrades and ensure students at Apollo have the same opportunities as their peers at Tech. Proposed improvements include more flexible spaces and equipment for career and technology classes, plus renovations of original spaces such as the band and choir rooms.

"We aren't looking for carbon copies, but we are looking for opportunities to provide same or similar learning opportunities and safety measures," said Putnam, who added that she anticipates bringing project cost estimates to the school board this summer.

After the 2015 referendum failed, the district squirreled away dollars to add controlled entrances at each school. Apollo is the only school left without a separate vestibule where a staff member can check a visitor's identification before they enter the school.

"We will be doing a temporary secure entrance this summer because to us, and to the board, it's unacceptable to continue to do nothing," Putnam said.

A recent law change mandates that districts add to buildings to create storm shelters. To build a new entrance, the district will need to add a fourth gym that doubles as a shelter, which the district cannot afford to do without a referendum, Putnam said.

Apollo Principal Justin Skaalerud said the updates are crucial for preparing students for college or careers, as well as competing with surrounding districts for students.

"In central Minnesota, you have a lot of options," he said. "I think the referendum would put us right in play with every school in central Minnesota as far as being top-notch facilities."

Doom, who teaches health careers at Tech and Apollo, said the flexible spaces at Tech allow better career-readiness education — and she sees that reflected in the students every day.

"I feel the luckiest person in the building," she said, "because I hear kids saying all the time, 'This is the one class I come to where I can see how it connects to my future.'"