Bigfork School Board Approves Bond Request for High School Renovation

Voters in October will decide whether to approve $14 million bond for significant makeover of 50-year-old building

By Dillon Tabish

The Bigfork school board on May 27 unanimously approved a bond request for $14 million to redevelop the high school, setting the stage for voters this fall to decide whether to grant a significant makeover of a 50-year-old building and campus that is already out of space amid rising enrollment.

Voters in Bigfork High School District #38, which encompasses the unincorporated county communities between Creston and Condon, will settle the referendum through mail-in ballots. Ballots will be sent in September and are due back by Oct. 9.

If voters approve the bond, property taxes for a home valued at $200,000 would increase by roughly $70 annually, according to school district estimates.

School administrators and board members have already tried and failed to gain voter approval for renovating the high school twice in the last decade.

Now, as district-wide enrollment continues to increase and more classes are shuffled into the middle school building, administrators say the high school is in dire need of redevelopment.

An independent site assessment last year found structural issues and growing needs throughout the campus, including more classroom space.

“The current building’s last major update was in the 1960’s and although we are doing well academically we certainly need to update the space,” Bigfork School Superintendent Matt Jensen said.

The school board unanimously approved the proposed scope of the project and goals for addressing inadequate space and deferred maintenance.

“This doesn’t mean there won’t be tweaks in the future but in general this is the roadmap,” Trustee Zack Anderson said.

Planners with CTA Architects Engineers presented details of the project at the board meeting, explaining how the multi-year renovation could improve existing space and build new additions to the site over the next three years.

“We found there is a lot of good things to work on and utilize within the main footprint of the building,” Fran Quiram with CTA said. “There are improvement needs but the main structure is good.”

If approved, the renovation project would progress in priority phases. The school’s priorities would be adding new classroom space to ensure all high school students would be taking classes in the high school instead of the middle school. The site would be better compartmentalized and space would be used more efficiently for classes and other school programs, David Koel with CTA said.

CTA’s plans showed the addition of eight new classrooms, two of which would come from reconfiguring the library on the second floor. The current library would be moved downstairs to a new section of school near the gym. The gymnasium would be modified and expanded with new lockers and bathrooms on the north end. The current gym is already in need of a new roof and floor and the locker rooms are inadequate, according to administrators.

The wood and auto shop would be renovated and upgraded to modern safety standards. The science laboratory and facilities would similarly be updated. Special education classes, which are currently conducted in a closet space, would be provided an adequate classroom area. Also, the parking lot area around the high school and middle school would be reconfigured and possibly expanded to improve circulation, parking and safety issues.

An estimated 24,000 square feet of new space would be built onto the existing building, according to the project plan.

The construction costs are estimated at $9.3 million. Site development costs are estimated at $1.1 million. Another $1.4 million would go toward overall project needs, such as fees, permits, surveying and materials testing in the old facility. Administrators recommended a 20 percent contingency fund in case there are any cost overruns, and the targeted contingency amount is $2 million.

The total estimated cost would be $13.8 million.

If approved, the construction could begin in the spring of 2016 and completed by fall 2018.

Nearly seven years ago, the school district failed twice in five months to pass a bond for similar high school renovations. The district proposed an $11.1 million bond for the high school and a $5.5 million bond for the middle school. Barely 52 percent of eligible voters responded in October 2007, passing the middle school bond but narrowly rejecting the high school request. The final vote for the high school funds was 1,249 for and 1,333 against, a difference of 84 votes.

Five months later, administrators gave it another shot with their second request, but this time the answer was more resounding. A total of 1,458 voters rejected the bond request while 1,209 supported it.

Enrollment in Bigfork has now risen for five straight years after seeing a consistent drop a decade ago. Projections show the district’s enrollment could hit 1,123 students within 10 years, according to a CTA report.

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