Architects Present Proposed Expansion Plan for Whitefish High School and Athletic Complex

School district representatives and architects discussed population growth, bond process at Whitefish High School expansion meeting

By Denali Sagner
Whitefish High School on March 15, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Whitefish School District on Dec. 14 hosted a community engagement meeting to discuss ongoing plans for the expansion of Whitefish High School. At the meeting, architecture firm Cushing Terrell presented three possible concepts for the expansion of the high school building and two concepts for an expanded athletic complex. Parents, educators and local stakeholders discussed prioritizing student needs, maintaining a competitive edge among area schools and keeping pace with rapid growth in the city of Whitefish.

At the onset of the meeting, Whitefish High School Principal Kerry Drown painted a picture of a growing school district, which is seeing larger and larger class sizes on the horizon. Drown acknowledged members of the community who have expressed confusion about the need for an expansion, given a 2012 reconstruction project that involved a remodeled gymnasium, added classrooms and a new fitness center at the high school. However, Drown said the current building will not meet the needs of the high school’s expanding student body, which is already utilizing space-saving features such as shared classrooms and courses hosted in the Annex, a leftover section of the original Muldown Elementary School building.

“One of our basic fundamentals is to provide an excellent academic experience for everybody,” Drown said.

Throughout the meeting, growth in the school district and in the city of Whitefish at large dominated both community concerns and proposals set out by the project planners. The city of Whitefish gained 1,394 residents between 2020 and 2021, marking a 22% population increase.

Corey Johnson, principal architect with Cushing Terrell, explained that the high school has surpassed its 575 student “trigger point,” the enrollment number at which the district must start planning for future growth. Currently, 583 students attend Whitefish High School. Using a 2% growth rate projection, Cushing Terrell estimates that the high school will enroll 644 students by 2027, 711 students by 2032 and 866 students by 2042. The firm, Johnson explained, plans to accommodate the 20-year growth projections, which will require the construction of 24 additional teaching stations.

Representatives from Cushing Terrell presented three possible concepts for the expansion of the high school building, all of which would add the 24 desired teaching stations, increase kitchen space, relocate classes currently taught in the Annex and expand the space available to Whitefish Independent High School.

The first model involved expansions to the south of the school building, the second involved an expansion to the north and the third presented a hybrid, with smaller expansions to both the north and south portions of the building. Members of the high school expansion committee shared favorable comments toward the hybrid model, which would limit construction disruptions, allow for a remodeled “commons” space for students and place additional technical and elective classrooms near existing ones.

Al Hammel, teacher at the independent high school, said the hybrid plan would benefit his students, who would have proximity to the rest of the high school and the expanded technical and elective classrooms.

“Our independence is now focused on independent learning and independent goals, rather than being independent from the district,” Hammel said.

Additionally, Fran Quiram, associate principal at Cushing Terrell, presented two possible models for a redesigned athletic complex. The first option involved a new track with grandstands, an additional football field, expanded parking and a multipurpose building. The second, more extensive option involved a new football field and track with grandstands, a new combined soccer/football field with grandstands and a new practice field, as well as expanded parking and a multipurpose building.

Quiram told attendees that both plans would accomplish the firm’s goal of “bringing all the athletes home.” Currently, a variety of sports practices are hosted off-campus, given the limited capacity of the high school’s fields and courts.

The budget for the project will range from $26.5 million to $34.8 million, which will translate to a taxpayer cost ranging from $13.13 per month to $17.24 per month, for Whitefish taxpayers with homes at a $500,000 property valuation. The individual per-month cost for residents will depend on the property valuation of their home.

Attendees expressed general enthusiasm about the expansion and raised a number of questions.

Brett Holmquist, a Whitefish resident with three children in the school district, expressed concerns that building for 20 years of growth would not address the needs of the school district in the long term.

“Twenty years feels like a long time, but what’s going to happen in our valley?” Holmquist said. “We all know we’re on the map.”

Another parent asked if the district had considered building a new high school entirely, rather than expanding the existing building. Johnson explained that the firm considered a wide range of options, but that the cost of constructing a new high school would far exceed the cost of an expansion. Some attendees raised the possibility of Whitefish adopting a dual high school system similar to the one in place in Kalispell, as the city sees rapid growth; however, expansion committee members said this would not be necessary in the near future, emphasizing that having one singular high school is an “important cultural value” in Whitefish.

Parents and community members also raised concerns about a successful bond process, pointing to two bond proposals to renovate the high school in 2003 and 2008, both of which were rejected by voters.

“How have the needs changed? How have the voters changed? How can we address these voters?” one mother asked.

Katie Clark, Whitefish School District board chair, encouraged community members to “look at the context in a bigger way,” portraying a renovated high school as a community asset, both for its students and for the workforce in Whitefish. Clark emphasized the importance of renovating both the high school building and the athletic facilities as a way to keep the district competitive in the context of the rest of the Flathead Valley.

“Facilities drive decisions,” Clark said. “We want to make sure that we’re competitive and that our kids want to be here and can thrive here.”

As the development process continues, Drown and the representatives from Cushing Terrell encourage attendees to start conversations with friends and neighbors about the bond process and to educate residents about the importance of expanding the school facilities and planning for the future.

Questions and concerns can be sent to [email protected] or can be addressed to Principal Kerry Drown.