After more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic delaying progress on the new Whitefish High School (WHS) sports complex, the topic is back at the forefront for school administrators and trustees, but with some big potential changes on deck.
The Whitefish School District (WSD) recently identified looming classroom capacity constraints at the current high school facility, and school officials say the growing need to expand learning spaces could alter the look of the planned athletic fields.
“The discussions over the stadium complex have really started picking up steam again in the last few weeks,” said WHS Activities Director Aric Harris. “We’ve had the recommendation that we need space for our kids in the high school now, but we also need to address the athletic facilities.”
At the Nov. 30 work session of the Whitefish School District (WSD) board of trustees, the Enrollment and Facilities Advisory Committee presented a draft long-range facility plan developed with education consultant Darlene Schottle that takes a forward-looking view at enrollment and expansion needs.
According to the most recent WSD enrollment data, the high school had 581 students in a building, rebuilt just seven years ago, designed to accommodate 600. The district plan built in a “trigger” of 575 students to signal a need for expansion plans. According to enrollment projections, the high school will surpass 600 students in the 2023-24 school year.
By utilizing off-site spaces, and reconfiguring classrooms and teaching assignments, the school is able operate with a higher capacity of 645. Currently, quarters are so tight that some teachers are without permanent classrooms and have resorted to wheeling carts carrying their teaching materials from room to room. In addition, the high school uses four of six rooms at the Annex, a leftover section of the original Muldown Elementary School building.
The draft plan offers several recommendations to address the need for more learning spaces, including building an additional wing and altering the designs for the stadium complex to include classroom and gym spaces that could be used for physical education and health classes.
The report also identifies a need to consider the proposed stadium complex in the district’s growth plan to ensure personnel and maintenance of the facility is accounted for in the budget.
“I think the ideas we have for the complex are pretty solid, but I think a lot of the details might be morphed,” Harris said. “We want to make more flexible spaces and there might be a way to incorporate classrooms into that design.”
The state-of-the-art sports complex was first approved in 2019, launching a $6 million fundraiser by the Whitefish High School Booster Club, a significant endeavor without the use of public funds.
In August 2020, architecture firm Cushing Terrell released design renderings showing a single venue that would house multiple athletics fields, bringing most Bulldogs sports onto campus for the first time. Currently, the soccer teams compete at Smith Fields south of town while the football team plays at Memorial Field across the street from WHS.
The current design includes competition areas spread out over 15 acres. The plan calls for a 10-lane track encircling a turf field on the north side of the property and a soccer stadium and practice field to the south. Both stadiums can be configured for football as well. Two shot put rings, a discus ring and a javelin runway will be built outside of the track stadium.
Flanking the stadium entrance will be the cheerleading center and locker rooms and a multipurpose fieldhouse that will serve as a practice location for the wrestling team, which currently trains in a converted maintenance garage.
The track stadium would be able to seat approximately 3,000 fans plus allow for additional portable bleachers around the field, and the soccer stadium would seat 1,500, with additional informal seating along a grass berm.
As designed, the complex carries a $10 million price tag, which is being fully funded by private donations to the WHS Booster Club.
“I think this will go one of two ways,” Harris said. “Either it’ll go how we already decided … or it could change to a single stadium, some practice fields and classroom spaces.”
The WSD middle school bond approved by voters in 2003 is set to expire next year, and Harris says that could give the district a chance to bring a new proposal to voters to help fund new construction. If a hybrid classroom-stadium model is considered, it could significantly lower the cost of the complex and allow the district to dip into public funding.
“I was really happy with the process we went through to arrive at the design we have,” Harris said. “But with the information we’ve received, we need to act now to get students the space they need to be successful.”
“We’re bursting at the seams,” he added.
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