Bigfork Voters to Decide on $16.6 Million to Update Schools

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Schools here are catching the remodeling wave that has swept across the Flathead Valley. A ballot will start showing up in mailboxes after Sept. 19, due back by Oct. 9. The question before voters: whether to fund an $11.1 million high school bond and $5.5 million elementary school bond for renovation and expansion.

“They had many, I guarantee you, spirited discussions before getting to this point,” Superintendent Russell Kinzer said of the school board at a parents meeting.

“Basically,” explained school board trustee Denny Sabo, “we’ve got a 50-year-old structure with a lot of deficiencies. If we could have built a new school, we would have, but this is the best we could do.”

One of the obstacles to building a new school is a common deterrent: money. Bigfork School District is limited in the amount it can ask from voters. The school districts information booklet lists the bonding capacity for the high school at $12.5 million, and $9.84 million for the elementary school. The caps put new land acquisition and construction out of reach. Plus, where else would the school go?

“One of the things the citizens of Bigfork liked,” school board chair Maureen Averill said, “was having the school in the middle of town.” In the late 1990s the school board asked voters to build a new school, the bond failed.

Bigfork’s school board began looking at the current condition of the schools in November 2005. It employed the help of Architects West of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, to set up the review process: study the buildings needs, figure out costs, and come up with a design. Architects West employed a private facility analysis firm, MGT of America, to study the school and compare its capabilities to national industry standards.

Kinzer said the final report listed several academic areas negatively affected by the design of the site, and the buildings. The new plan updates science labs, art rooms, cafeteria and kitchen space, adds more classroom and office space, and gets rid of the temporary sixth grade and math buildings.

“The math portables are 18 years old,” Kinzer said, “and that’s supposed to be temporary.” The new areas at Bigfork High School are 40 years old, the elementary school has additions more than 20 years old.

The new design separates parking and traffic flow for the elementary and high schools.

“Opening day was terrible,” Superintendent Russell Kinzer said, “we had cars backed up to the [Flathead] bank.” Cars lining up to pick up or drop off students stretched out of the parking lot and down towards the traffic light at the intersection of U.S. Highway 35 and Grand Avenue.

With the renovation, both buildings would have a clearly defined front entrance. In the high school, it would be next to a new joint county-school library. Flathead County would lease space from the school district and share staffing duties. Kinzer said Bigfork library’s need to move to a bigger space, combined with the school’s need and the scarcity of land in the area put the proposal on the table. The biggest concern is security.

“We have an advantage in this being part of newly designed facilities,” Kinzer said, “so we can build in security.” Some of these built-in measures include locating the library next to the office, creating a separate entrance for the public, separate bathrooms, Internet use, and staff supervision.

Enrollment dropped in Bigfork by about 65 students in kindergarten through eighth grade between 1997 and 2007, and the high school lost 34 students over the same time period. Numbers for the whole district have dropped steadily since 1997, then slowly rose, but in general the district lost students over the last 10 years. Kinzer points out that the stagnant enrollments aren’t the point. The bond deals with current shortcomings in the schools’ designs.

“We’re seeing limits on our ability to offer a modern academic experience based on our rooms,” Kinzer said.

The election is for 15-year general obligation bonds. For someone in both districts, the cost of both bonds passing would be $125.12 annually for a $100,000 house. The cost of just the high school bond would be $77.42 annually for a $100,000 house. If passed, a call for bids would go out in January of 2009, with construction starting in June 2009 and a projected finish date in August 2010.

Bigfork schools are eager to give tours weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call the district office at 837-7400 to schedule.

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