School center secures $2.1M in donations

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A rendering shows the the planned Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship at Whitefish High School.

The Whitefish School District has secured $2.1 million in funding for its Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship and is poised to begin construction in April.

The next step is selecting contractors, which is underway after the Whitefish School Board on Jan. 24 voted to move forward with an alternative projects contract.

So far the project, which has evolved from a $60,000 greenhouse into a two-story, multi-million dollar outdoor learning center, has secured the necessary private donations to construct the facility. About $1.8 million will cover capital expenses, like building and landscaping, while $300,000 will go toward start up costs for educational programming.

The alternative project delivery contract allows the district to choose developers for the project based on a variety of criteria, rather than simply choosing based on price, explained Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt.

“This means that we are ready to move forward with selecting a contractor to build our Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship for Whitefish schools,” Davis Schmidt said. “This methodology allows us to go through a public bid process for the contractor, but also allows us to use multiple measures to determine which contractor will be the best fit for this project.”

The center is set to be located on about 3 acres of land at Pine Avenue and East Fourth Street at Whitefish High School.

Teachers Eric Sawtelle and Nikki Reed, who have been involved in the design of the center since the projects’ conception, also gave a brief presentation offering a glimpse at how much the project has evolved.

“Two years ago we came and presented to you,” Sawtelle said. “We were excited about building a greenhouse and we had the choice of option A and option B. Little did we know, at the time, with this amazing power of the philanthropic community and involvement here in Whitefish, there was another option. It’s turned into a very good project.”

Initial designs included a greenhouse attached to a small classroom. Since then, Sawtelle and designers have increased the size, expanded it into a K-12 project, and incorporated outdoor areas like a native plant wetland, a native grassland and an experimental forestry zone. The building is also designed to be net-zero in its energy use, the first in the state of Montana, according to the school district.

Keeping the focus on the students who will get to use the facility has been a priority during the design process, Sawtelle said.

“I think that we can’t lose track of this,” he said. “That it’s all about the students and that’s how this project originated. And for me, I have to stay kind of rooted in this idea, because there’s going to be fantastic opportunities that our kids will have as a result of this project.”

Construction of the sustainability center is expected to begin in April, with the building being operational by winter.

During the school board work session, Trustee Marguerite Kaminski was the lone opposing vote on moving forward with an alternative projects contract.

During the work session, Kaminski voiced concerns about whether the board had considered other uses for the 3 acres of land where the sustainability center is to be constructed.

“Three acres is a lot of land for a particular parcel,” Kaminski said.

Trustee Heather Vrentas said that the board had already voted to move forward with the project months earlier, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where the district would sell the property.

“I don’t know what would be an appropriate use that would be worth the money for us to have a private entity basically in our front driveway, the entrance to our school. I don’t really see it as land that we could sell,” she said.

Kaminski also expressed a worry that fundraising efforts should be focused on bigger needs for the district, such as the renovation or construction of a new Muldown Elementary School.

“I have a conflict within myself personally to support this center for sustainability but yet have this other project that’s so important, which is upgrading or building a new Muldown,” Kaminski said. “The more critical need to me appears to be Muldown.”

The sustainability center is funded primarily through private donations. The school district has said it plans to put a bond request before voters later this year for funding for the Muldown project.

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