Board approves updated plans, budget for sustainability center

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Construction crews were out early Tuesday morning as the construction of the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship gets underway north of Whitefish High School. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

After two years of planning, the Whitefish School Board gave final approval last week to accepting donor funds and construction contracts to begin building the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship.

The board voted 6-1 to approve spending up to $2.1 million for the construction of sustainability center July 24 during a special meeting. Construction is estimated to cost $2.1 million, but the district has secured additional funding for a total project budget of $2.7 million.

“I think this is an exciting moment for us,” Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said. “We are finally down to the last decision that we need to make in order to move forward with the building of the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship at Whitefish Schools.”

Trustee Marguerite Kaminski, who voted in opposition of the project, explained her decision saying it’s difficult to give support to an ever-growing project like the sustainability center while other, larger priorities loom for the district.

“I’m coming from a whole different perspective. It’s just made me a nervous wreck to see it go from a $70,000 greenhouse … up to $2.35 million plus the $300,000 with a reduced scope,” Kaminski said of her concerns. “I guess I’m very goal-oriented, and I see one of our major goals in this community is Muldown. I don’t feel like I can support something that grows to this extent.”

Over the last two years, the sustainability center has evolved from plans for a greenhouse into a two-story, multi-million dollar outdoor learning center, with private funding of $2.35 million already secured through the Whitefish Community Foundation. About $2.1 million will cover capital expenses, like building and landscaping, while roughly $300,000 will go toward start up costs for educational programming.

Early designs featured a greenhouse attached to a small classroom. Since then, teachers and designers have increased the size, expanded it into a K-12 project, and incorporated outdoor learning areas. 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.

The project budget in January was set at $1.8 million for capital expenses with $300,000 toward start up costs for educational programming.

Recent increases in construction costs around the Valley, however, have led to some changes in the project. Since February, construction cost estimates for the project have risen 22 percent, Davis Schmidt said.

Through value engineering, Davis Schmidt said, facets of the project like the production garden and the food forest — where students grow food-producing bushes and trees — have been put on hold. About $100,000 in owner contingency was also removed from the project’s budget, though $50,000 in construction contingency costs still remain. The owner’s contingency prepares for changes in scope that an owner might decide on prior to construction, while a construction contingency leaves room in the budget for unforeseen costs that can arise during the actual building phase.

Davis Schmidt said along with the market’s increase in costs, there was also an unwillingness from the project committee to accept the reality of the costs for the state-of-the-art facility, which she said they’d been hearing about from architects and construction firms all along.

“We just did not want to believe them,” she said. “We worked very hard to reduce the cost of the building and it turns out that the design of what we were trying to create, even though it’s a very simple design, it was going to be a $2 million building.”

“Costs have increased in the Valley for a couple reasons, mostly because commercial construction projects in the Valley are at an all time peak, I would say, and we’re competing for access to subcontractors,” she added.

Davis Schmidt said the parts of the project that have been removed, like the production garden and the food forest, will be included in future plans, most likely as student and community-based partnerships.

The board in March approved an alternate project delivery contract with Martel Construction, with the construction budget not to exceed $2.1 million.

The center is set to be located on about 3 acres of land at Pine Avenue and East Fourth Street at Whitefish High School. Construction is set to begin this summer with the opening date planned for late next spring.

Trustee Anna Deese sympathized with Kaminski’s frustrations for the growing costs, and worried that the pieces of the project that were cut could impact the educational goals of the center.

“It definitely doesn’t feel good to hear, ‘Oh we were told this price all along’ and we’re making decisions based on a different price,” she said. “If I just look at the total end cost right now and think about that building, does the committee still feel like they’ll meet the educational goals of the students fully?”

Director of Curriculum Ryder Delaloye reassured the board that he’s already looking at steps to get those missing pieces into future plans for the sustainability center. If anything, adding some of the garden and forest pieces can be worked into the curriculum itself, he said.

Former School Board Trustee Shawn Watts agreed, saying there’s some value that could come out of getting students to see how the rest of the project comes together after it initially opens. Watts has been involved in the project committee for the last two years.

“There’s a lot of benefit of course to having the fully formed bricks and mortar and outdoor learning facility when the students arrive, but I think personally there’s a lot more benefit to taking advantage of the need to develop that stuff over time to teach exactly the curriculum that are intended to be driven through this,” Watts said.

In a separate vote, the board also approved sending a letter from the district to the city of Whitefish requesting the permits and fees associated with building the center be reduced or waived, in accordance with the intents of the city’s planned climate action plan. The board voted 6-0 to approve the request, with Kaminski abstaining from the vote.

Delaloye explained the reasoning behind the letter.

“The goal of the climate action plan is to do two things, to identify where they are contributing in the form of greenhouse gases, but also what the implication of that is in just inefficiency and waste,” Delaloye said at the July 24 meeting. “One of the things those [fees and permits] would do, if they are accepted by the city, is be a message that they are a partner in this process, that they are contributing to this process and they will receive benefits, but also that these could potentially be diverted to landscaping and to those funds as well.”

Currently the $29,276 in building permits and impact fees are included in the project’s budget.

If reduced or dismissed, that money could be rerouted back to some of the parts of the project that had to be cut in the final stages of design, like the landscaping pieces such as the food forest and production garden, according to the district.

Delaloye said while there’s no guarantee the district will get the break it is seeking, he’s optimistic about its chances.

“I think the time is right. The current composition of City Council is good in terms of favoring this,” Delaloye said. “I feel confident, but I would be remiss to say it’s guaranteed.”

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