Group Hopes to Raise Money to Build Whitefish High School

By Beacon Staff

Whitefish High School’s enrollment is plummeting at a time when school officials and community members are actively seeking a new facility for students. It’s a difficult conundrum: fewer students mean less funding from the state and, consequently, more obstacles for any large building project.

But school officials agree that the current high school is inadequate and antiquated, necessitating a substantial facility upgrade. So at an April retreat, the school board and Superintendent Jerry House made a decision to move forward with plans to construct a new school within the next four years. It is part of the district’s overarching strategic plan. Also, a citizen group has formed to raise funds for a new facility.

Acknowledging the tough economic times, House said planning is in the earliest stages and nothing is close to being set in stone. The district is compiling a committee to outline the feasibility of such a project. Last year, voters denied a $21.5 million bond that would have added 85,000 square feet and renovated existing space.

“We’re going back to the drawing board,” House said.

As discussions about declining enrollment and facility upgrades have picked up speed, a new topic has become increasingly relevant and, at times, controversial: Glacier High School. The two-year-old school sits down the road, serving as a $35-million example of modern architecture’s appeal.

At 243,000 square feet, with an array of amenities and programs, there have been whispers that Glacier is attracting students who otherwise would be attending Whitefish High School. In the past, House has acknowledged that Glacier plays some role in his district’s declining enrollment, but emphasized there are many other factors involved with the cyclical nature of school enrollment. Since 2004, enrollment has dropped from 742 to 551, a 26 percent decrease.

Having heard the whispers regarding the shrinking enrollment, a citizen group recently took it upon its shoulders to find out the extent to which the rumors are true. The group, called Positive Alliance for Whitefish Schools (PAWS), has also taken surveys to find out what students like about their current facility and what changes they would like to see in the future.

PAWS was established by Ellie Clark, Toby Scott and Joan Vetter Ehrenberg. It formed as a grassroots effort to address the declining enrollment problem and to get the community involved in planning for the high school’s future. Like House and the school board, PAWS supports building a new high school, with environmentally friendly features, as opposed to remodeling the existing school.

Vetter Ehrenberg said her group hopes to raise between $5 and $10 million over the next couple of years to give the district a financial jumpstart on building a new high school. She pointed to the nearly $5 million in private funds raised to remodel Whitefish Middle School into a top-notch performing arts center. The community of Whitefish has reputation for philanthropy and Vetter Ehrenberg said there’s no better cause to give to than education.

In addition to private funds, Vetter Ehrenberg said her organization wants to pursue grants and other funding sources. Any money still needed would come from a bond.

“We ought to be able to raise significantly more for a school,” Vetter Ehrenberg said.

Shortly before the school year ended, PAWS hosted a lunch at the high school that was funded by the Whitefish and Parkside credit unions, and featured live music by John Dunnigan with burritos from Wrap & Roll. At the gathering, PAWS handed out surveys to students to get a better grasp on how much Glacier is actually affecting enrollment and what the students feel are the most critical issues facing the school.

Those results will be revealed at PAWS’ next meeting, held at 7 p.m. on June 23 at the Whitefish Library.

“If we lost a large amount of kids to Glacier next year, it would potentially affect the outcome of a bond the next year after that,” Vetter Ehrenberg said. “It would just compound the difficulty of the situation for the community.”

The group also surveyed community members to gauge their thoughts on the existing school. People were asked if they voted for or against last year’s $21.5 million bond and why they voted that way.

Vetter Ehrenberg said one issue her group is focused on, aside from the big-picture solution of a new school, is a closed campus for lunch, which Glacier has and Vetter Ehrenberg feels many in the Whitefish community would like to see. Overall, she believes the Whitefish community is willing to address the school’s problems if given the chance.

“People have been very excited to have an avenue to help because they realize there’s nothing more important than education,” Vetter Ehrenberg said.

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