Academic Extreme Makeover

By Beacon Staff

Less than three years after Flathead County voters approved the biggest school bond project in Montana history, the bulldozers and hammers will be laid to rest this summer.

Architects and builders have spent about $53.5 million on a massive makeover of area schools, adding more than 300,000 square feet and renovating thousands more. Those numbers don’t include the $16.3 million project at Flathead Valley Community College.

Two bonds passed in November 2005 to remodel Kalispell Junior High and Flathead High, as well as build Glacier High. Both the $39.8 million high school and $10.9 million middle school bonds had more than an 85 percent voter turnout, with 56 percent voting for the high school and 60 percent for the middle school.

On top of that, a $15.8 million bond had already passed two years earlier for additions and renovations at FVCC. Due to lawsuits, the FVCC project didn’t get underway until 2005.

Then voters opened their pocketbooks again for education, narrowly approving a $637,547 school levy earlier this month to help pay for the staffing and maintenance of Flathead’s expanded school system.

Education officials and architects working on the projects say the overall size and cost of construction show that Flathead County was ready for big changes in its school system.

“This is us listening to the community, to match what the community needs,” said Suzie Burch, Director of the Continuing Education Center at FVCC.

Two architecture and engineering groups have overseen the projects: Architects Northwest at FVCC and the middle school, and CTA Architects and Engineers at the two high schools. Swank Enterprises provided the contractors and built both high schools, the middle school and one of FVCC’s new buildings.

CTA started work at Glacier High School on June 15, 2005. They used a “fast-track” system in which architects designed while building had already started. Construction will be completed June 16; the entire high school built from the ground up in exactly two years.

CTA Project Architect Corey Johnson said the current $37.4 million price tag is very close to the final total cost of what he calls “my favorite project I’ve ever worked on.”

“We’re pretty much there,” Johnson said. “It’s been challenging, but greatly rewarding.”

Johnson said the land was purchased at the right time at a cost of $10,000 per acre. Recently, he said, a bidder agreed to buy neighboring land for almost $80,000 per acre.

A $240,000 federal biomass grant went toward the wood chip-burning heating system. CTA architects estimate that the school will save more than $7 million over a 30-year period compared to a gas heating system. The biomass heater is an example of the many “green architecture” features at Glacier, including a design that allows the school to use natural light and “free cooling,” which cools the building with nighttime air.

While much attention has been given to Glacier because of its recent open house, the three other school building projects are also impressive.

Flathead High School is adding a new student commons area and food court, along with more than $500,000 in upgrades and renovations. Johnson said the goal is to provide a more comfortable, open-air atmosphere. Because of 10 major renovations that began in the early 1900s, Johnson added, the school’s sections are closed off to each other.

“They kind of created a maze,” he said of the previous renovations.

Of the more than 15 different upgrades and renovations, highlights include locker upgrades, asbestos removal and various repairs on the roof, carpet and other areas.

“You could drop $40 million on Flathead just in code upgrades,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot the public can’t see.”

Kalispell Middle School, formerly Kalispell Junior High School, is adding 45,000 square feet of new space and remodeling 30,000 square feet of existing space. The major additions are a new gymnasium west of the current gym, sixth-grade classrooms north of the library and a “cafetorium,” a combination of a cafeteria and auditorium.

“There’s new people moving here with new ideas, expecting to see the amenities they’re used to having where they come from,” said architect Don Counsell of Architects Northwest.

Flathead Valley Community College is adding three new buildings: the Occupational Trades Building, Arts and Technology Building and Early Childhood Education and Care Center. Architects Northwest has also added 3,000 square feet of new science labs in Ross Hall.

Architect Mike Kohl said construction has benefited from donated equipment and furnishings, including $18,000 of furniture from Stock Builders. These donations have helped offset the costs of purchasing expensive laboratory equipment for Ross Hall.

Kalispell School District 5 Superintendent Darlene Schottle acknowledged that unveiling such a large project with so many variables can be a bit nerve-racking.

“There’s always some concern at the beginning,” she said. “But we’re excited.”

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