Voters in Columbia Falls have approved a $37 million bond that will build a new elementary school, remodel and expand the city’s other elementary and fund other updates in the district.
Ballots were mailed out on Sept. 19 and were due back Oct. 8. The final tally came in late on the evening of Oct. 8, with unofficial results showing that the bond passed by 97 votes, with 1,892 in favor and 1,795 against. The 3,687 ballots cast represented a 41 percent turnout.
“I’m so happy for this community, for the kids in this community, for the parents, for the teachers who have worked in some of the conditions in the buildings for the last 30 years,” Columbia Falls Superintendent of Schools Steve Bradshaw said following the vote.
Bradshaw added that he understands many people, including those on fixed incomes, weren’t in a position to vote in favor.
“The folks who are living on fixed incomes, that’s the toughest part of this whole thing,” he said. “But I do believe it was the right thing for the community and it’s good for the community, especially the kids of this community.”
The bond will fund construction of a new 75,000-square-foot Glacier Gateway Elementary directly to the west of the existing school, which was built in 1940, as well as demolition and remodeling at the current facility, at a total cost of roughly $25.7 million. The bond will also refurbish Ruder Elementary School, which was built in 1975, and add 24,125 square feet, a project totaling about $10.2 million.
The bond will also fund new multi-use fields between Ruder and the junior high school. The district notes that the community already lacks sufficient multi-use fields, which will be exacerbated by the new Glacier Gateway displacing an existing field. With parking, that project will cost about $954,000. The funds will also pay for a new secure entrance to the junior high to improve safety at a cost of approximately $200,000.
The $37.07 million bond will add $18.86 per month to the tax bill of a home with a market value of $200,000, which is about $226 per year. But that cost will be offset by a junior high school bond coming off the books at the end of the school year, bringing the actual cost to about $12.17 per month, or $146 per year, for a $200,000 home.
District officials have said the junior high school bond’s relinquishment makes the timing optimal for the new bond, along with historically low interest rates.
The two elementary schools each currently have almost 500 students, and a steering committee process with a consultant identified enrollment increasing to about 650 students per school over the course of the bond’s 20-year lifespan. With the bond, each school will be able to accommodate that many students.
School officials say Glacier Gateway has a range of significant maintenance needs that have grown too costly to fix piecemeal, as well as an obsolete layout that is not conducive to modern education models that emphasize collaboration. Officials say Ruder also suffers from outdated infrastructure and deferred maintenance needs, including heating boilers that have never been replaced.
Bradshaw said the school board will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the projects’ designs and plan out the contractor-selection process. Although Bradshaw is hoping the new school and remodeled school will be ready for the 2021 school year, there are a number of factors that might not make that timeline realistic.
But he thinks the multi-use fields and junior high security projects could happen as early as next summer.
“We’re hoping we’re ready to break ground this spring,” Bradshaw said.