District to retain part of building, tear down gym

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Muldown Elementary School was constructed in 1966 and a major renovation of the building was completed in 1992. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

The kindergarten and fourth-grade wings of the current Muldown Elementary School building will remain while the rest of the school building — including the gym — will be demolished after a new building is complete, the Whitefish School Board decided last week.

The board on Sept. 10 heard a variety of possible options for the building, which is being replaced by a new $26.5 million school set to open in fall of 2020. The board voted unanimously to demolish the old gym, which has been a key issue for members of the public who have wanted to repurpose the gym as a community space.

Dow Powell, owner’s representative for the construction of the new Muldown, shared four options for the old school during the meeting.

The first would retain the kindergarten wing and repurpose the existing gym to be turned into the receiving and maintenance area. The rest of the 1960s and two-story sections of the school would be demolished, while utilities would be reconnected to heat the remaining areas. The option would cost $1.8 million.

Option two would retain the kindergarten wing, while “mothballing” the gym for future use, meaning the gym would be sealed up and receive enough heat to keep it running. New boilers would be provided for each area and receiving and maintenance would be a separate, future project. The option would cost $1.7 million.

Option three would also retain the kindergarten and preserve the gym for future use, but turn the existing kitchen and multipurpose area into receiving and maintenance, while repurposing the current boiler to serve all areas. That option was ruled out due to costs, which could top $2 million.

Option four, the one chosen by the board, saves the kindergarten wing and supplies it with utilities and a boiler plant. A new metal frame building would be constructed on the fourth-grade slab area for receiving and maintenance, and the gym and the rest of the building will be demolished. The option would cost $1.8 million.

Along with option four was a suffix option, which would have retained the gym for future use and add a new boiler plant to maintain heat and utilities. That portion alone would have an additional cost of $510,000.

The board’s decision came down to staying within the $1.8 million budget that has been set for dealing with the current school building when it is no longer in use.

Board chair Nick Polumbus said while he understood the public’s need for more gym space, the money just isn’t there for the district to keep the gym.

“I hear you. And when I think about, ‘Have we heard enough community [input]?’ I kind of feel like I have, honestly. I’m not sure I need more time to hear about the desire for more and more space in Whitefish,” he said, addressing the public at the Sept. 10 meeting. “I don’t know where $500,000 comes from right now in this budget. I know it’s not here.”

Trustee Ruth Harrison said she agreed, and that the need for maintenance to use the fourth grade space as receiving and maintenance as outlined in option four is the most prudent move.

“It’s really clear to me that we have a finite amount of money from this bond, and part of our commitment is to take care of our maintenance and receiving, and also we see the way clear to preserve that kindergarten wing. But beyond that, that’s the end of our budget, really,” she said. “I don’t see how we can squeeze anything out of our budget to do anything that is remotely adequate with the existing gym at this point.”

Before the board’s decision, members of the public made their case for keeping the gym.

Brenda Guzman said she’s frustrated with the lack of gym space in Whitefish as it is, and she isn’t happy to see a gym torn down.

“From the perspective of a person who has used the current Muldown gym quite extensively, it’s always been difficult to get gym time as it is,” she said. “I know we’re getting a bigger gym, which is fantastic, but it seems like our community keeps growing and growing and so I hope this bigger gym has taken that future growth into account as well.”

Rachel Phillips added to that, wondering if this was what was promised when the Muldown bond was passed in 2017.

“The reality is when we passed the bond, it was passed under a certain perception and that may not necessarily work out the way it was sold. We have a very generous community here financially, and I think a lot of people here would feel that the No. 1 priority would be to assess our community’s needs and then figure out financially where we are,” she said.

The board also looked into holding off a definite decision on the gym to explore any fundraising opportunities in the near future to retain it, even going as far as to consider packaging that in with the fundraising for the proposed future Whitefish athletic complex that will likely be constructed directly north of the existing school.

However, Bulldog Booster Club President Joe Akey said he’s ready to work off whatever the situation provided on the site, but didn’t want to take on more promises in a stadium plan that’s still in the conceptual phases.

“We’re willing to react to whatever your decision is about that gym. We’re not looking to take on raising $510,000 to save the existing gym,” Akey said. “I don’t want to get that specific with no donor in the wings. I think that would be setting us up to fail.”

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