New school design would be tailored for education

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  • Students enter the Muldown Elementary gym on a recent morning to begin health enhancement lessons. A curtain was installed in the center of the gym to divide the space. Enrollment numbers at the school require that two classes use the gym at one time. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, presents Democratic legislator Rep. Dave Fern with the state chamber’s “Champion of Business” award Thursday morning at the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce office. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

  • Students enter the Muldown Elementary gym on a recent morning to begin health enhancement lessons. A curtain was installed in the center of the gym to divide the space. Enrollment numbers at the school require that two classes use the gym at one time. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, presents Democratic legislator Rep. Dave Fern with the state chamber’s “Champion of Business” award Thursday morning at the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce office. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

The current Muldown Elementary School is cramped and outdated, architects say, and starting from scratch with a newly constructed building would allows for a tailored educational experience for the students and current teachers in ways a remodel could not.

“The pros of a new school are obvious,” Steve L’Hereux, lead architect for L’Heureux, Page and Warner, said. “We can put all the bells and whistles in, we’re not limited by anything. We can have a real gym. We can get a much better multi-purpose dining, commons area than there is now.”

“Right now they can’t do a complete in school program where all the kids, or even half the kids, get together. The new school would offer that kind of thing as well,” he added.

For more than a year, Muldown Project Task Force — made up of community members, staff and architects from LPW — mulled over 11 different options for how to address the current Muldown Elementary School building’s failing infrastructure issues.

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.

The task force narrowed its options down to three: a $14.4 million bare necessities fix, a $24.2 million fix and remodel and a $26.5 million brand new school.

The latter seemed the best use of money and the best way to ensure flexibility in the future, L’Heureux said.

“We’re not building for now, we’re building for flexibility in the future. So we can accommodate new tech, new pedagogies, new children. Children are different than they were 20, 40, 50 years ago. They’re smarter and more intuitive,” he said. “We’ll be designing the building to be able to be logically added on to, simply and logically with room, so that should it need to be, it can.”

The Whitefish School Board voted to hold a special election seeking approval of a $26.5 million bond for the new school. Voters will decide on the bond during the Oct. 3 election. While no final designs for the new school building have been created, the school district and task force have worked with LPW to create an overall vision for a new Muldown.

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 be located on the west side of the school next to Pine Avenue.

L’Heureux said changes in education was a huge factor in the task force’s decision to recommend a new school. While the current building was designed to be a “wide-open” and innovative space for its first classes in 1967, the way classes are conducted now is different. A new Muldown would reflect those changes while remaining flexible to future changes, L’Heureux said.

“These kids learn together, they do projects together, they need to interact. They’re very social, they actually learn from their friends, so recognizing the social piece of how these kids interact and what can ignite their interest,” he said. “It’s rarely sitting at a fixed desk in a fixed row in a classroom. So now we build these spaces that can be changed in a heartbeat.”

“I’ve witnessed the teachers at Muldown trying to do this, but they struggle with it because they don’t have any space,” he added.

The other huge priority in designing a new space is the ability to control and assure better security for the school.

L’Heureux has called the current school a “security nightmare” due to its long hallways, original doors and windows and multiple points of entry.

Being able to organize the school in a manner that’s safer for the students is of paramount importance, he said, including for staff to monitor students during the school day ensuring their safety.

“The ability for parents and buses to drop kids off safely,” he added. “Also to ensure that the right people are allowed in the perimeter of all this. The security that we do in these schools is enormous.”

If the bond is approved in October, the school district and LPW will get to work on creating full designs for the new school building.

Right now LPW has completed a space plan to assess the square-footage needs for the school based on current and expected future enrollment numbers. The maximum capacity for a new school would be 756 students, with a high enrollment of about 740 predicted. Muldown currently houses about 700 students.

Though it’s been a long and tedious process with the task force, L’Heureux said he’s been impressed with how thorough and passionate the members of the community have been while looking for solutions to Muldown’s issues.

He’s been through this routine a lot, he said, with a long career of school planning, but the Muldown task force has been one of the highlights.

“This task force has been the most thorough and involved one that I’ve ever been involved with, and I’ve been planning schools for well over 30 years. It’s really just a great bunch. Just caring people who are willing to look at anything, and nothing is off the table.”

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