When Muldown Elementary School opened its doors on Sept. 5, 1967, it was heralded as radical and innovative for its “open-plan” design, but more than 50 years later the school appears to be in dire straits.
Water leaks from both the roof and the piping below the floor, while the 50-year-old heating system threatens to fail at any time. More students continue to fill classrooms and crowd hallways. There’s no other way around it, the building is failing, Whitefish School District administrators say, and they are looking for a solution before the situation gets worse.
While the walls are clean and the students are learning, internally the aging building is struggling, Muldown Principal Linda Whitright said during a recent walk-through of the school.
“The things that we’re talking about, you can’t see,” she said. “This school has been such a strong piece of the community for such a long time that, because of what happens — the teaching and the loving and the embracing that goes on within — people don’t realize it.”
After nearly two years of deliberation, the Whitefish School Board and the Project Muldown Task Force — made up of community members, Muldown staff and architects from L’Heureux, Page and Warner — have decided the best course of action is to build an entirely new $26.5 million elementary school.
Securing funding for the new school will require voter approval of a levy during an Oct. 3 election. If passed, property taxes would increase about $130 annually for a home with a taxable value of about $240,000, according to the school district.
First constructed in 1966 with major renovations in 1992, Muldown is now the largest elementary school in the state with just over 700 students this year in kindergarten through fourth grade.
The most pressing issue facing the school’s infrastructure is the heating system, District Maintenance Director Chad Smith explained.
One of the school’s two boilers is from 1966, the other from 1991. When one of the millions of parts fail, there are no longer replacement parts for the aged equipment — Smith must piece together patchwork fixes from newer parts to keep things running smoothly.
“Right now, when something breaks on it, we have to find a way to take a more modern part and modify it to work,” he said. “But if the actual boiler itself were to crack, or the gaskets were to blow, it would be done. Useless.”
Underneath the floors of the school, old, deteriorating piping also threatens to leak at any time, Smith said.
In the event the entire heating system fails during the winter — which Smith said might not be avoidable — the whole building, as well as the school schedule, would freeze.
The school could freeze inside out, Smith said, icing up piping and requiring a massive amount of energy to thaw it out.
“You find yourself with a real serious problem if you let the building cool down. It takes a lot to reheat it. Everything freezes up with ice,” he said.
In a situation where the school does freeze inside-out, the best hope is that the heating system can function well enough to melt things out. If not, school would likely be canceled or students and staff would be forced to don hats, gloves and mittens while a temporary heating solution is implemented — a situation Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt experienced in her time at the Missoula School District prior to coming to Whitefish.
On a daily basis, teachers in their classrooms also face a wide variety of temperatures due to poor insulation and heat distribution. Smith said in some rooms, one corner could register at 80 degrees Fahrenheit while the opposite end of the room could be 60 degrees. In other rooms it’s the extremes — either too hot or too cold for comfort.
Smith gets to work at 4:30 a.m., spending the first hour of his day going through each classroom in the school, making sure the heat is working and the rooms are at an acceptable temperature.
Another threat during the winter is too much snow building up on the school’s roof.
During a heavy snow year like the past winter, Smith and his team of two other full time employees had to remove snow from the 50,000-square-feet roof with the district’s three commercial snow blowers during each snow event. Once off the roof, the piles of snow also have to be removed.
Even after adding a full time employee and making a part-time position full time, Smith said they still had to contract out for snow removal.
“There’s honestly no way we could handle the snow load alone,” he said. “We’d be up there all winter.”
Steve L’Heureux, lead architect for L’Heureux, Page and Warner, has been working with the school district to analyze the current school and look at designs for a new school building. He said the intent of the roof originally was to use snow for insulation, but the idea was impractical.
“The roof wasn’t designed structurally to hold the snow load that Whitefish gets,” he explained.
Other small issues plague the building. Many of the doors are wooden and have original hardware that can’t be easily replaced. Large spaces, like the multi-purpose cafeteria and the gym, are still too small to fit half the school’s students in them. Some of the windows are either Plexiglas or only open a few inches out. All of these pose safety concerns, Smith said.
When elementary school staff participated in “run, lock, fight” active shooter situational training in January, some of these issues became obvious.
“We went through some run, lock, fight training ... and we realized that our windows only go out [several inches],” Smith said. “They can’t escape through the windows, it’s impossible for the most part. That second point of exit is crucial.”
L’Heureux also said he sees the inefficiencies of the school’s design — long, extended hallways, multiple points of entry — as a “security nightmare.”
While Muldown was originally built to comfortably house 600 students, last year 670 kids walked the halls. Student counts are still in progress, but Whitright said about 710 students are enrolled in the school this fall.
In the weeks leading up to the new school year, 13 changes have been made to existing and makeshift classrooms to accommodate the extra students. What were once intended to be staff offices are now classrooms, and spaces like the teachers’ workroom have to be shifted to smaller rooms to accommodate an extra kindergarten class.
Storage space has been cleared out for new uses, leaving the space beneath the ramp leading up to the second-grade wing as the best place to stow away spare furniture and supplies.
One hallway, nicknamed “dysfunction junction,” demonstrates traffic issues in the school well. During a five-minute stop at the intersection, which connects three hallways near the gym to an outside door leading to the playground, roughly a dozen groups of students and accompanying teachers and staff, made their way through the crowded area. Often one classroom of students walks through the area while two others stand waiting their turn to pass.
Architects at LPW have worked demographic projections to develop a space plan for the proposed new school, landing at a maximum student capacity of 756, with around 740 being the expected highest enrollment numbers in the future.
A lot of thought went into arriving at 756, Davis Schmidt said, because another overcrowded school is what they’re trying to avoid.
“The worst thing would be to build a brand new school and already be not be able to meet the capacity of our student population,” she said.
A demographic study compiled for the school district in 2016 projects that school enrollment should remain steady over the next decade. The study by McKibben Demographics shows enrollment in the district is expected to increase by 6.7 percent, or 113 students through 2020.
Outside Muldown, an inefficient parking lot and traffic flow during drop off and pick up hours causes more headaches, something a new school campus hopes to address as well.
“The traffic is already a nightmare,” L’Heureux said. “It’s not only congested and time consuming, it’s dangerous.”
Finding a solution
The Muldown Project Task Force originated from committees tasked with looking into the school’s traffic and heating issues, said Brian Schott, the district’s contracted public relations manager and member of the task force.
In the case of both the traffic and heating studies, it became obvious that something larger needed to happen to address the issues, he noted.
Over the next year, the task force worked with LPW to narrow 11 initial solutions down to three final options: the new school at $26.5 million, a bare necessities repair of the current school estimated to cost $14.4 million, and an expansion and upgrade of the current school estimated at $24.2 million.
A new school was not even part of the conversation when the task force was first formed, Schott said, but the process of understanding the realities of the situation led to a new building as the best long-term solution.
“I think that’s when the committee’s eyes started to open,” he said. “Fourteen million just to fix the heating system, the roof — all the major issues with the building.”
“The new school was never on the table from the start, that is what the task force ended up discovering,” he added.
The new Muldown is proposed to be about 84,000-square-feet over two stories and include a new gym. The school would be situated at the corner of East Seventh Street and Pine Avenue, south of the high school, and would be constructed over a 30-month period.
The advantages of a new school are obvious, L’Heureux said. The building can be tailored to the current staff’s wants and needs, updated infrastructure will make the school run more efficiently, and a separate construction site causes the least amount of disruption to the students in the current school.
“If we’re going to spend $20 million to add on and remodel, the new school is not that much more. Let’s get it done and get it done for the long term,” he said. “Building a new school on the site there is going to be somewhat disruptive ... but it’s a whole lot less than trying to move kids around in a building [that’s under construction.]”
L’Heureux said his firm is not drawing up final designs for the new school unless a bond issue passes.
Voters will make a decision whether to approve a bond to construct a new Muldown school. Ballots are set to go out this week in the mail-in election.
If approved, the $26.5 million levy to build the school will cause an increase of about $11 per month over 20 years for a home with a taxable value of roughly $240,000, the district said.
Voters in 2012 passed a $14 million bond for the construction of the new Whitefish High School, which was opened in 2014. The final price tag for the building was $23 million with extra funds being obtained through donations.
Schott noted some concern in the community over the Muldown project’s high cost and the worry that it will go over budget as past projects have. However, he said, every possible cost has been factored in to avoid unforeseen spending popping up during construction.
“I just think there’s some nervousness in Whitefish in terms of, ‘Last time you said it was going to cost this, and then it cost this.’ So there’s been such due diligence — even in the geotechnical work just to make sure that site is ready for a new building,” he said.
Davis Schmidt recognizes that not all of the community is on board with building a new school.
A survey in February showed 42 percent of respondents in favor of repairing and adding onto the current building, while 21 percent advocated for minimal repairs and 18 percent for a new school.
Support for a new school rose slightly after hearing more information about the school’s deteriorating heating system and roof, and 58 percent of respondents said they’d be more favorable to a new Muldown if parts of the old school were to be retained.
According to LPW, a total of 25,000-square-feet of the original building would be retained to be re-purposed in the future.
Davis Schmidt said she encourages those who are on the fence to come to Muldown for themselves and see the problems the school faces.
“We love to share more information about why this is so important for the community,” she said.
“The community is a reflection of our schools. So even though we have so many people in this community who don’t have children in the schools, I feel we’re fortunate that our community recognizes the importance of the public school system in the economy. It’s what attracts families to our community,” she added.
There are roughly 10,000 voters in the school district, which comprises the city of Whitefish and areas north and west of city limits.
Voting is by mail in ballot only. Ballots will be mailed to voters on Sept. 15 and must be returned by Oct. 3 through the mail or to the district office at Whitefish Middle School.
For more information on Muldown, visit www.wsd44.org