Excitement resonates in Superintendent Mark Flatau’s voice when he describes the latest chapter for Kalispell’s schools. The city’s public school district is embarking on its largest undertaking in history by developing $54 million worth of upgrades and construction at all 10 schools.
The extensive, multi-year plan is coming into focus four months after voters approved two school bonds, a $25.28 million request for the elementary district and $28.76 million for the high school district. Sweeping changes are in store for every facility, including Flathead High School and the Agriculture Education Center. At a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week, Flatau explained the tentative plans for tackling the various projects.
The process will begin this summer with the groundbreaking of a new elementary school on the south end of Kalispell. The $15 million facility is surfacing 30 years after the town’s last elementary site, Edgerton, was built and will relieve the congestion that is plaguing the other five schools. It is tentatively designed and awaiting a general contractor, who will be selected soon. Aiming to address the chronic overcrowding first and foremost, the school district says site construction will begin in May with a completion date set for Aug. 24, 2018.
“We’ve started this project right off the bat,” Flatau said. “It is the project we wanted to get done first, by fall of 2018.”
“It’s going to be a great building with a lot of neat features,” he added. “This school will be very different than any elementary we have.”
The new facility, located on a 25-acre property along Airport Road, will incorporate a 21st century learning model that is common at schools across the U.S. This framework focuses on developing a variety of learning spaces beyond the traditional classroom concept.
The new school will be located on the northwest corner of the property, and the district is leaving the lower portion empty for the potential development of another site in the future.
“We’ve reserved that for a future middle school,” Flatau said. “We will eventually need another middle school and will already have property.”
Kalispell Middle School, the lone public school for sixth- through eighth-graders in town, is the largest in Montana with more than 1,100 students.
A project manager was hired to oversee the largest and most complicated projects, such as the new elementary school, and the district will manage the smaller developments to keep costs low, Flatau said.
“Anytime you spend $54 million of taxpayer money, you want to make sure you’re being prudent and it’s on budget,” he said.
As a way to help the local construction industry, the school district will hire multiple contractors through separate bids for the various projects, Flatau said.
“Our goal is to engage as many local contractors as we can,” he said.
The district and its school board will have to reshape the boundaries from five elementary sites to six, and that process is likely to begin in the coming year, Flatau said. Also, the district will hire additional staff for the new elementary school by adding site-specific positions such as officer managers and custodians and a principal, but teachers from other schools will likely be moved to the new facility.
“We could never hire an entirely new staff for that building,” Flatau said. “We just don’t have the budget to do that, nor would we.”
The other school projects will include a $19 million renovation and expansion at Flathead High School. Funds are being set aside to purchase an adjacent property that an owner has offered to sell to the district to help increase parking in the residential neighborhood. New classrooms and an auxiliary gym will be built at the school, and design plans will begin this spring. Construction is slated to start in April 2017.
“That’s a fairly complicated project,” Flatau said.
The Agriculture Education Center will receive a $4.65 million upgrade and expansion, with four new classrooms, a new welding shop and a science lab along with a commons area and new restrooms.
“From my perspective, this will be fun to see how this develops,” Flatau said. “It will really allow hands-on, constructive learning experiences for our students.”
Each of the five elementary sites will receive upgrades, many of which are basic needs and deferred maintenance, such as failing roofs and heating systems. Adding space where it’s possible will also be a priority, Flatau said.
Linderman Education Center, inside one of the oldest buildings in downtown, will receive a $3.44 million renovation, including a roof replacement.
Kalispell Middle School will receive $411,300 for roof repairs and parking lot upgrades. Glacier High School will receive $426,000 to address parking drainage issues and other parking and sidewalk needs. Legends Stadium will undergo a $958,000 upgrade with a new synthetic turf and repairs to the bleachers and locker rooms.
In good news for taxpayers, interest rates remain low, which likely means the estimated property tax burden will be slightly lower than expected. Flatau said the school district is planning to sell the 20-year bonds in March, either all at once or in portions.
Taxpayers in the elementary district with a home valued at $170,000 — the city median — would see an annual tax increase of $91, which is nearly $8 less than expected. In the high school district, a home valued at $170,000 will see property tax increases of roughly $57.75, which is about $4 less than initial estimates.
Kalispell’s school district is poised for action in the coming years as it begins a new chapter.
“The key is to make sure it’s thorough and all the people who need to be involved are involved,” Kalispell school board member Jack Fallon said after Flatau’s presentation. “It seems like we’re making sure that happens.”