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Plan says school district needs to begin exploring options now for WHS building as it nears student capacity level

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Whitefish Pilot | December 15, 2021 1:00 AM

Whitefish High School is less than 20 students away from reaching its capacity limit, and to address the issue Whitefish School District needs to begin looking into options to accommodate a growing student population, according to a Whitefish School District long-range facility plan.

Enrollment in the high school will likely surpass that capacity mark in just two years, but has already reached the “trigger point” for planning purposes meaning the district needs begin to exploring options now for the building. Solutions could mean a variety of things such as constructing a new wing to the school, reconfiguring grade levels, or utilizing alternate school district spaces.

Though the high school is closest to capacity, as Whitefish’s population continues to grow each year other facilities are being closely monitored by the district as well.

“[A long-range facility plan] is pretty important in a community like yours where you’re seeing an influx of people,” said education consultant Darlene Schottle. “Where new homes are going up, and you’re seeing some changes in your community — so what does that mean for your school system?”

Schottle was hired by the district to lead the development of the facility plan.

The district this fall began looking into current and future school facility needs in terms of enrollment trends, site conditions and analyzing facility usage, among other factors.

At a recent work session a final draft of a long-range facility plan for the district was presented to the school board in its entirety, and few changes are expected, though the board will still have to put it to a vote in the coming months to officially adopt the plan.

Schottle, along with a committee formed of district administrators, school staff, parents and a school board trustee, has determined the next steps for the district in managing its facilities and which buildings will need additional space or upgrades in the future.

Three months ago Schottle presented an initial draft of the facilities study to the school board, but since then has ironed out several details and the plan now has an in depth prediction of the future of the facilities as well as potential options for each building going forward.

“It’s a wonderful report and it's great to have a roadmap to help us to know where to go,” school board Trustee Darcy Schellinger said.

The committee determined that the WHS building is the most pressing issue the district faces when considering facilities due to the enrollment nearing capacity. The plan suggests the district’s first priority should be to look into the feasibility of building a new wing onto the current building.

Additionally the committee determined that the new stadium complex project could be a good opportunity to share the space for additional classrooms or a career technical education program. Combining the project would both give the stadium complex a financial boost, if the district decided to co-fund it with the group currently collecting donations, and it would utilize open areas in close proximity to the high school for expansion.

The stadium project has been in fundraising stages for a few years and a final design for the planned project was approved by the school board in August of 2020. The new stadium would house space for a football-soccer shared field with stadium seating as well as a track and field facility, wrestling and cheerleading rooms and more for the Whitefish athletic programs.

To accommodate the growing number of students, WHS is now utilizing four of six classrooms in the newly renovated annex building next to Muldown Elementary School and one permanent classroom in the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship. The plan suggests these should both be short term solutions to nearing the capacity of the building and planning should take place now on how to permanently alleviate the issue.

The Whitefish Independent High School is also expected to grow and could potentially need expanded classroom space. The plan says WIHS could move to a new building or space in the middle school building in the coming years, which would both give WIHS and the main high school additional classrooms.

“It’s a good time to look at the overall district facility plan, not only for capacity, but for what programmatic needs you might have,” Schottle said. “Just to ensure that as you move forward you have a plan in place so that when the time comes you can have a document to look at to say OK this is what we believe to be the next logical step to house our students, provide a good working environment for our staff, and provide the most uptodate and innovative facility situation that we can provide to our students.”

The middle school has the most extra space out of all the school buildings in the district. Its current enrollment is still over 200 students less than the designed capacity, but the committee determined that its extra space could be used to alleviate space issues in the other schools. Such as when Muldown Elementary reaches its facility use trigger point in terms of enrollment, rather than building a new school or wing the district could look at reconfiguring the grade levels between the buildings. Or alternatively the district could look at moving a high school program to a space within the current WMS building.

Though the Muldown building is brand new as of 2020, the long-range plan predicts another elementary school building will need to be built within the next decade. When planning for the current Muldown, the community expressed the desire to have one large elementary school instead of split enrollment into cross-town schools, and the plan says it would be possible when a new building is built to reconfigure all grade levels from kindergarten to eighth grade which would keep all kids in Whitefish in a particular grade at one building together.

When predicting the enrollment, district business clerk Lucie Shea says the committee decided on a 2% growth factor which aligned with historical data.

Schottle also stated that the maintenance of the buildings has been kept up well and the district is in good shape when considering the condition of the buildings.

“Fortunately as a community and as a board you have done a really excellent job of keeping up with your buildings, the maintenance and condition your buildings are in is very good,” she said. “You’ve kept it up all the way along, so you can be really proud of that.”

The community has the opportunity to comment or give feedback on the long-range plan draft up until it is approved by the school board.

To view the long-range facility plan draft visit the school board minutes at, https://go.boarddocs.com/mt/whitefish/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=C5DUA67B1125

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