After hearing strong support from members of the community in attendance, the Whitefish School Board voted unanimously during its Tuesday meeting to ask voters for a bond to construct a new Muldown Elementary School.
All 13 citizens who spoke urged the board to move forward with the process of building the new proposed $26.5 million school.
“When Muldown was constructed, it was ahead of its time — now the future and learning, education and technology are passing us by,” Katherine Sivanish, whose daughter is in kindergarten, said. “We should take this opportunity now and positively impact the learning environment for all future generations of Whitefish students so that they may all thrive.”
Securing the $26.5 million in funding for the new school will require voter approval of a levy during an Oct. 3 election.
If the levy passes, it would mean an increase in property taxes of about $130 annually for a home with a taxable value of about $240,000, according to District Business Director Danelle Reisch. That works out to roughly about $11 per month over a 20-year period.
Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said the impact is “in the mid-range, maybe even on the low end in terms of taxpayer impact.”
“I didn’t want us to focus solely on the total amount, but recognize that we are a large enough school district with a large enough student population that the impact is spread out over our taxpayers,” Davis Schmidt said.
Trustee Marguerite Kaminski expressed concerns about costs and if $26.5 million would be enough. If the levy passes, Davis Schmidt said, $26.5 million is exactly what the district will have to spend.
“We can’t go above whatever the voted bond amount is,” she said. “Certainly we wouldn’t be able to and wouldn’t go back out to the public for more money.”
Trustee Shannon Hanson also reminded the board and those in attendance of the board’s role in the decision and the importance of leaving the matter to the public.
“We’re not voting tonight on a new school,” he said. “This board is not approving a new school, we’re approving giving the decision to the members of the community, and it’s irresponsible not to do that.”
The Muldown task force, a group comprised of parents, teachers, trustees and staff, in March gave its recommendation to the board for constructing a new Muldown building while also retaining part of the existing school. The group spent more than a year exploring options.
The school board unanimously approved the recommendation and agreed to go to the voters for approval.
Muldown is the largest elementary school in the state with about 670 students in K-4. The school was built in 1966 with a major renovation completed in 1992. The 50-year-old building faces problems like a failing original heating system, structural issues with the roof, lack of insulation and vapor barriers, inadequate drainage in parking lots, a failing irrigation system, and many mechanical systems far past life expectancy.
During Tuesday’s meeting, parent Rachelle Grant attested to the heating issues at the school, having experienced them firsthand while reading to her daughter’s kindergarten class.
“During the winter I would sometimes find myself in some really hot spots, actually having to go home and take some headache medication. But then I’d go to other spots and I’d be cold,” she said. “It’s amazing what the Muldown staff does, because my daughter never comes home complaining and the students don’t notice. But we know this isn’t good for them, and that we can do better.”
Shawn Tucker also reasoned that it makes more financial sense to secure a stable building for the future rather than hope for the best with the deteriorating Muldown.
“If these multiple failures occur at the same time, I worry that the district would be in a worse financial position than asking the taxpayers for a new school. We have an extremely dedicated staff,” he said. “I think it’s time to reward them and our students with suitable working conditions.”
The new school is proposed to be about 84,000-square-feet and include a new gym. The two-story structure would be built over a 30-month period and situated at the corner of East Seventh Street and Pine Avenue, south of Whitefish High School.
A new roadway is planned to be constructed between the two schools to mitigate traffic, starting at Pine Avenue and heading east to the where the current Muldown is located.
The existing two-story section of Muldown that was constructed in 1991 would be saved, along with a section to the south next to Seventh Street. A total of 25,000-square-feet would be kept from the original school including the gym, with a parking lot constructed between the two retained sections of the current building.
A parent drop-off and parking lot area would located be on the west side of the school next to Pine Avenue.
Through the planning process the task force narrowed the initial 11 proposals down to just three options: the new school, a bare necessities repair of the current school estimated to cost $9.1 million, and an expansion and upgrade of the current school estimated at $16.3 million.
As Brian Schott, the school district’s contracted public relations manager and part of the task force, noted, there was no set goal the task force hoped to reach when they set out to solve Muldown’s issues.
“We were very careful to do what we saw as the most efficient cost-wise for the long term,” he said. “I don’t think anyone came into thinking, ‘Oh a new school is what we’re looking for. It really was a step by step process.”
Tim Peterson, one of the principal architects for L’Hereux, Page and Warner, who is designing the new school, agreed. Peterson said one of the biggest reasons behind a new school was the minimal amount of disruption to ongoing education.
In upgrade projects, entire classes would likely be moved to temporary modules located outside on school grounds.
“All the other scenarios were how could we remodel and add on to the existing Muldown school,” Peterson said. “While there would have to be a safety plan adopted the new school, one of the major factors in going to a new building was the least disruption to the educational process and the highest level of safety because we can really define the limits of that site.”
Muldown principal Linda Whitright echoed the sentiments of Lloyd Muldown, the longtime educator the current building is named after, saying that the purpose behind a new building is not unlike the purposes that supported building the existing school in the 1960s.
“I usually will quote Lloyd Muldown, and I have to,” she said. “[Muldown said] ‘We could perhaps implement some new ideas in school planning and programs that would strengthen our educational base,’ and I echo those words tonight, as he said them in 1965. Fifty-two years later, when we are thinking of building a new Muldown elementary building, and it is for the same exact words and the same exact purpose they had then.”