Reading, Writing and Renovations

Bigfork wraps up high school construction project; Whitefish braces for packed elementary school

By Justin Franz
Mary Sullivan points to the view of Bigfork Bay from the courtyard while touring the renovations at Bigfork High School with her husband Paul, center, and Bigfork Schools Superintendent Matt Jensen on Aug. 25, 2017. The Sullivan's both worked at the high school for more than 20 years. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Students across the Flathead Valley are returning to school this week, and while some will be returning to increased square footage and refurbished classrooms, others will be coming back to increasingly crowded hallways.

Crews are wrapping up a $14 million renovation at Bigfork High School this summer, with an expected completion date sometime this fall. The project is adding 30,000 square feet of floor space to the facility. School Superintendent Matt Jensen said it’s the school’s first major renovation since the 1970s.

“It was a significant project,” Jensen said, “and we did not waste any space.”

The renovation gives the school a total of 78,000 square feet and additional classroom space. The science rooms will now have better access to laboratories, and instead of a large cafeteria, the school now features smaller gathering places throughout the building that can double as a place to eat lunch and have classes.

“We wanted to create spaces that could be used all day,” Jensen said. “I think the school is a lot more comfortable now, and I think that’s going to help students succeed.”

Construction began in early 2016, and Jensen noted that there are still a few classrooms that need to be renovated. Jensen said the timing of the expansion was perfect because had the school waited another year or two, it would have cost 30 percent more.

“We would have either had to ask for more money from the public or we would have had to scale it down,” Jensen said.

Meanwhile, 30 miles north in Whitefish, Muldown Elementary School officials are shuffling around rooms to accommodate increased enrollment. Muldown, the largest elementary in the state with more than 700 students between kindergarten and fourth grade, is having to add additional kindergarten and first grade classes after higher-than-expected enrollments. Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said on average each grade has 130 students per year, but this year the first grade class has jumped up to 150 and could be even greater on Aug. 30 when students arrive. To deal with the influx of first graders, the teachers’ lounge has been turned into a classroom. Occupational therapy services have also been moved into a conference room to deal with an increase in kindergartners.

“We have significant needs at Muldown right now,” Davis Schmidt said.

This fall, the school district is asking the community to vote on a $26.5 million bond for the construction of a brand new elementary school to deal with the growing population. Ballots will be mailed out on Sept. 15 and will be due back by Oct. 3. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming school election, Davis Schmidt said it’s possible the school will have to utilize mobile classrooms during the 2018-2019 school year.

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