Whitefish High School Wants Money for a Makeover

By Beacon Staff

As the bell clanged, students clogged a cramped two-way double doorway, like traffic backed up on an urban interstate. Twenty-foot lines formed on either side as friends walking abreast shuffled to squeeze through, inadvertently slamming each other with packs or notebooks.

That doorway forms the breach between two parts of Whitefish High School – the old and new. Relatively speaking. The 54-year-old C wing houses more than half of the school’s classrooms, while the 30-year-old “modern” part culminates in what most people see – a well-kept gym.

With both old and new sections ailing, Whitefish School District went to the voters in 2002 for a $10.4 million bond that failed. After a several-year redesign, the district is going to the voters again with a mail-in ballot due March 27. This time, the renovation bond is for $21.5 million. The bond would finance phased construction – 85,743 square feet of new building and 78,105 of modernization of existing structures – beginning in spring 2009. By winter 2011, the C wing would be demolished. The phased construction will minimize student disruption with far less displacement than Central School experienced, says Principal Kent Paulson.

Built for 400 students, the high school, which annually tests in the state’s top echelons, has averaged 582 students for 40 years. The past decade it topped 700. As numbers grew, the school employed creativity, chopping a study hall into two classrooms and carving a cafeteria into counselor offices, a student store, and a science lab.

The school, in essence, built inward. The result was seven classrooms with no windows – an irony that hits home in Chris Ruffatto’s earth science class. Here, the students study geology, oceans, and weather, but Ruffatto can’t point out a window to use real-time Flathead weather as an example.

Students cram into tiny classrooms, 25 of which are 650 square feet or less. With no lab space available, Lori Martin’s physics and Reed Kuennen’s environmental science classes move into the halls or the foyer for experiments. While the bond won’t increase the number of classrooms, it will add classroom space.

“We have the number of rooms we need to deliver the curriculum, but not the square footage to apply learning through modern means,” says Paulson. “Teachers have lots of different concepts they’re waiting to try. They just don’t have room.”

Most classrooms would expand to 1,000 square feet. Science classrooms would swell to 1,500 square feet.

Labs are overbooked. Current wiring, outlets, and out-of-code circuit breakers won’t permit adding computers and modern technological teaching tools to classrooms. New plans would include 8-10 computers in every classroom and many rooms replacing white boards with Smartboards. A new open second-story landing will lead into a new library, and computer labs would jump to five.

Jacquie Gaertner steps out of her C5 American history classroom shivering from the cold. She jokes about donning layers in the morning as the room takes several hours to heat up. Five doors down, heat from C9 blasts into the hallway from a rusty heat register. Unseen, except for ceiling stains, are corroded pipes and leaky steam tunnels overhead.

“This building was designed with windows providing ventilation. Great idea in a Montana winter,” Paulson says.

With the cafeteria lost years ago to classrooms, the gym foyer mutated into a lunchroom seating only 160 – forcing an open campus. Even by scheduling split lunches, the building can’t accommodate its population.

“We’ve wanted a closed campus, and the community has requested it for years,” Paulson says. The proposed addition would close the campus, adding cafeteria space to seat 370 and a food court.

Except for the main entrance by the gym, school security mandates outside doors be locked to intruders. But as the bell rings, teachers open outside doors to ease traffic flow from overcrowded narrow hallways. Renovation would change the traffic flow, increasing security for the school.

As the construction targets deteriorating buildings, security, and technological modernization, supporters don’t want to see the work postponed into future years. Estimates from a Friends of Whitefish Schools contractor poll place the bond’s $21.5 million price tag increasing by $6 million in five years and $13.5 million in 10 years.

“We’re getting a lot for our dollar,” Paulson says.

Friends of Whitefish Schools invites the public to tour Whitefish High School on Feb. 16, 5-6 p.m.; Feb. 27, 2-3 p.m.; March 5, 4-7 p.m., during parent-teacher conferences; and March 13, 6-7 p.m.