Whitefish High School Expansion Bond to Head to Voters

The Whitefish school board approved a proposal to expand the high school’s academic and athletic facilities at a cost of $33.7 million

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

The Whitefish School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday night approved a recommendation to pursue an expansion of the Whitefish High School building and athletic complex with a bond of approximately $33.7 million, which will head to voters for approval this fall.

During the Tuesday board meeting, representatives from architecture firm Cushing Terrell presented a plan for the high school expansion that would include the construction of 24 additional classrooms, shops and labs, as well as expansions to the kitchen, career-technical education facilities and independent high school through additions to the north and south sides of the building. The expanded athletic complex would include new and remodeled football, soccer and practice fields, a new track, bleachers and a multipurpose building. About $21 million of the $33.7 million bond needed to complete the project would go towards the academic building expansion, with about $11 million going towards the athletic complex.

Over a yearlong process, Cushing Terrell architects, alongside members of the school board and local stakeholders, considered a number of plans, which included drafting three models for the high school building expansion, as well as a partial and a full athletic complex expansion. Through a survey and two community engagement meetings, the school district solicited feedback on expansion options and voters’ willingness to approve a bond at various price points.

If approved, the $33.7 million bond would cost Whitefish taxpayers who own homes at a $500,000 property valuation between $15 and $17 per month. The individual per-month cost for residents will depend on the property valuation of their home.

The expansion plan was designed to accommodate Whitefish High School’s historical 2% population growth rate, adding space for 881 new students expected to enroll in the school over the next 20 years.

Ultimately, the plan presented to the Board of Trustees met the greatest number of needs identified by the community while staying within a cost that voters would be likely to approve, Cushing Terrell architects Shawn Pauly and Fran Quiram said.

In a poll conducted by the district, 56% of surveyed voters said that they would vote to approve a $34.8 million expansion of the high school building and athletic complex, a cost that exceeds the proposal the board approved this week.

“We can honestly say we’ve turned over every stone, and it’s been a wonderful process,” Quiram said.

Trustees discussed concerns over passing the bond to expand the high school, given the rising cost of living in the Flathead Valley and the historic reluctance of Whitefish voters to approve a high school bond. Voters in 2003 and 2008 rejected high school building bonds at the cost of $10.4 million and $21.5 million, respectively.

“With the widening income gap in this valley and this town, and so may other challenges we’re facing in this town, I want to be sensitive to delegitimizing those concerns of $20 per month,” Trustee Todd Lengacher said, emphasizing the importance of “being sensitive to the fact that those are real dollars for people.”

Lengacher also voiced concerns that some voters would support expanding academic facilities, but not the athletic complex.

“I think people are going to view it as, ‘Why are you asking me to pay for this when we have fields here?’” he said.

Board Chair Katie Clarke said that community members had voiced similar concerns about funding the athletic complex, which, to some, felt less important than the academic expansions.

“We did look at splitting into two different bonds and doing one academic bond and one athletic bond,” Clarke said; however, she also noted that polling showed voters would support a bond to expand both facilities.

Despite concerns, trustees discussed the importance of remodeling the athletic facilities to increase accessibility and to ensure that students are able to participate in extracurricular sports — a key part of the academic experience for many Whitefish High School students.

“We are cheating our kids and our community if we don’t produce athletes,” Trustee Shannon Hanson said. “We cheat our community and our students if we want them to participate in these sports in less than adequate facilities, for example, not being able to attend in a wheelchair.”

Multiple trustees noted that the current bleachers are not wheelchair accessible, making it difficult for students with disabilities to attend school-wide games and events.

The board approved the proposal in a unanimous vote, and the bond request will head to voters this fall.

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