Whitefish High School Design Plans to be Unveiled

By Beacon Staff

Whitefish residents will soon get their first look at three proposed design plans for a new or renovated high school.

A committee of more than 30 members, with wide-ranging backgrounds and community standing, held four workshops in May, June and July. From those workshops came three design proposals offering different renovation strategies at Whitefish High School.

The proposals range in price from $16.9 million to $19.5 million. Voters shot down a $21.5 million bond in 2008 to pay for an extensive school renovation. A $10.4 million school bond had already failed in 2003.

The priciest plan calls for tearing down and replacing the whole school, except for the gymnasium, which would be renovated. The school district has applied for an $800,000 grant to help pay for gym renovations.

The other two plans propose tearing down and replacing one or two wings of the school, respectively, while renovating the rest of the existing structure.

Chris Kelsey of Whitefish’s Steeplechase Development Advisors, the consultant hired to oversee the project, said last week that architects from Seattle’s DLR Group and Kalispell’s Jackola Engineering and Architecture are reviewing and tweaking the plans based on the committee’s suggestions.

The proposals will then be passed on to the school board for approval on Aug. 10, after which they will be made available to the public. Kelsey said the plans should be published online and distributed at various locations and events, including the farmers’ market.

“We want to provide every opportunity for feedback from the public,” Kelsey said.

Plenty of feedback has already been gathered, dating back to a 2008 public meeting series called Speak Up Whitefish. Also, Steeplechase Development Advisors conducted more than 150 face-to-face interviews with community members.

The school board hired Steeplechase last fall to oversee the planning process for a possible new or remodeled high school. Bayard Dominick is Steeplechase’s other representative in the project.

Throughout the community feedback sessions and committee workshops, numerous suggestions were brought up, discussed and either dismissed or incorporated into the three current proposals.

But Kelsey said there was a general agreement that improvements need to be made at the school, which has wings that date back to the 1950s. Precisely what those improvements should be and how they should be funded are the questions Kelsey hopes will be answered through the planning process.

“The feedback we have gathered from the community has strongly indicated that the majority of our community believes that the high school facilities need to be upgraded,” he said.

Kelsey said the committee settled on 116,000 square feet as a target goal for the school. The failed 2008 bond proposed 78,105 square feet of renovated space and 85,743 square feet of new construction for a total of nearly 164,000.

The project’s blueprint follows a six-step process. The first step, research and input, is already complete. Once the school board approves the three plans, the second step – concept design – will also be done, bringing the project to the public input phase.

“We want to make sure the community is involved with working out the design and price range,” Kelsey said. “One of the most important things is running a process that’s fully transparent.”

After public input, architects will refine the designs into one plan. That plan will then be used in seeking alternative funding sources. And the final step is proposing a bond to fund whatever isn’t covered by the alternative sources. Project coordinators believe the bond would occur next year or in 2012, depending on economic conditions.

Enrollment has been at the heart of school renovation discussions. Steeplechase Development Advisors has developed a graph that shows Whitefish High School’s enrollment peaking at 744 in 2005. According to the graph, it has since dropped below 500.

But the graph, utilizing what is called “cohort survival methodology,” examines lower-grade enrollments to determine future high school numbers. Based on strong enrollments in younger grades all the way down to kindergarten, the graph details a student increase at the high school beginning in 2012, when it should jump above 500 again.

From 2012 to 2020, according to the projections, enrollment should stabilize between 500 and 600, reaching a peak of 580 in 2015.

“The perception that enrollment is declining on a long-term basis is not accurate,” Kelsey said.

For more information, log on to www.whitefishhighschoolfuture.com.