Whitefish School District Looks to Future Growth Ahead of High School Expansion Levy Vote

If approved by voters, the expansion to Whitefish High School would add 24 teaching spaces, as well as updates to the campus athletic complex

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

After more than six months of planning, the Whitefish School District is asking voters to approve a bond to expand the high school building and athletic complex, a proposal that district administrators and architects say will account for student population growth 20 years into Whitefish’s future. Ballots will be mailed out to voters beginning Sept. 14 and must be received by Oct. 3.

“The growth of our community speaks to beautiful and vibrant places where families want to live and raise families,” Whitefish School District Superintendent Dave Means said in a press release. “We currently have 638 students enrolled in Whitefish High School and have surpassed what is recommended for our space.”

Whitefish High School has seen an enrollment increase of 18 percent over the past decade, pushing the building to its capacity and forcing teachers to adopt space-saving measures such as classroom sharing and hosting courses in the Annex, a remote section of the old Muldown Elementary School building. The expansion, according to district officials, would help serve an additional 283 students in the coming years.

Growth in the Whitefish School District tracks with an expanding population in the city of Whitefish and the Flathead Valley at large over the past decade. Between 2010 and 2020, Whitefish saw a 22 percent population increase, an addition of 1,394 residents. Even more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a wave of remote-working migrants to the resort town, bringing the estimated population in Whitefish to 8,915 as of July 2022.

The expansion plan — which was crafted by architecture firm Cushing Terrell in conjunction with school officials, community members, school board trustees and parents — includes the creation of 24 additional classrooms, labs and shops; renovations to kitchen spaces and the Whitefish Independent High School; expanded career and technical education facilities; and updates to the athletic complex.

Plans for the expanded athletic complex include new and remodeled football, soccer and practice fields, as well as a new track, bleachers and a multipurpose building. Updates to the athletic complex would allow the school to host practices and games on-site, rather than lease field and court space from the city of Whitefish, which is current practice. According to a press release from the school district, Whitefish High School is one of the few class-A schools in the state without many of its own athletic fields, and over the past decade, participation in sports at the high school has grown by 25%, with more than 500 students currently participating.

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.

“Academic and career and technical expansions are the main focus — and our athletic complex is of vital importance as well,” Means said. “Addressing overcapacity challenges will improve student learning and safety while we position our students for college and career readiness. Athletic field transitions, as well as the limitations, restrictions, and ongoing costs in leasing non-district athletic fields, can be addressed by this new plan.”

Estimated impacts to property owners are 38 percent lower than originally projected, due to new construction adding to the tax base in Whitefish and decreasing the share of the bond each property owner will be required to pay. On a $600,000 assessed market value home, the estimated cost is $146.59 per year, compared to the original estimate of $237.48 per year. The Whitefish Middle School bond has been paid off as of July 1, providing additional tax relief.

Mail-in ballots will be sent to voters on Sept. 14 and must be received by Oct. 3. Ballots may be mailed to or dropped off at the Whitefish School District office at 600 E. Second St.