New plans for old Muldown School prompt public dismay

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New plans for the current Muldown Elementary School that would convert the gymnasium into a maintenance facility instead of preserving it for sports practices and activities have some school staff, parents and community members scratching their heads.

The Whitefish School District is constructing a new school building, but part of that larger project also includes retaining the kindergarten wing and the gymnasium in the current building, while the rest of the school would be demolished.

Dow Powell, owner’s representative for the school district on the construction of the new Muldown building, last week presented the plan to the Whitefish School Board April 9, saying the gym area of the current building would be converted to a maintenance and receiving area, replacing the current receiving and maintenance buildings that are adjacent to the Whitefish High School track.

Those buildings could be demolished in the future as part of a proposed new stadium at the high school.

“The proposal was to keep the kindergarten wing, button things off, keep it warm and keep it alive for a future use — maybe extra classrooms for overfilling classes,” Powell said. “That is going to be a pretty nice and easy fix.”

Several parents and teachers spoke against the proposal during public comment, noting a desire to keep the gym for youth and high school sports practices.

Dana Grove, a first-grade teacher at Muldown, noted how the conversation about the gym came after a presentation on the district’s extracurricular involvement.

“I think it’s interesting that we had this great discussion about activities and how 85 percent of our kids are in all these activities and we have all these growing needs and we’re going to eliminate a gymnasium in Whitefish,” she said.

Grove suggested other uses for the gym, such as a spring sports practice area for when snow hasn’t melted enough to allow outdoor practices. Soccer, wrestling, youth sports and cheerleaders could also make use of the space, she said.

“Our decisions for our schools should always put kids’ needs first before adult needs. This is a huge need in our district and it has been for years,” she said.

Jerrie Boksich, a retired Whitefish teacher who worked in the district for 40 years, said she and others were led to believe a different plan for the school.

“I thought that when we were talking about building a new building, one of the things the public was told was that the newest parts of the building would be saved — that the kindergarten, the gym and the two-story first- and second-grade wings would be saved. Those buildings were only built in the ’90s,” she said, noting those wings could still be utilized.

“That was not the way that was originally sold,” she said. “It was not sold that way to the staff and it was not sold that way to the public; it was sold that the new parts would be kept.”

The cost for demolition and fixing up the current school is estimated at $1.7 million. Design fees total $112,200 between the gym and kindergarten areas.

Powell said the majority of costs come from the building’s utilities.

“It turns out the biggest cost of this whole program is the mechanical, electrical and plumbing, on both sides — whether we’re just going to save them, button them up and never use them for awhile — there’s still $700,000 that has to happen just to keep the buildings,” he said. “If we were trying to rebuild that somewhere else, we would pay about $1.7 million just to have something like that.”

Powell noted earlier in the meeting that retaining the first- and second-grade areas or the two-story wing of the building would add another $220,000 onto the demolition and repair costs for the old school, as well as ongoing maintenance costs in the future.

The proposal for work on the old building is expected to return to the board for their a vote on May 14.

Voters last October approved a $26.5 million levy request by the district to build the new school. The existing school faces issues such as overcrowding and a failing infrastructure. The new school was designed by architectural firm L’Heureux, Page and Werner and will be a two-story building with its own full-sizes gym and a student capacity of about 755 students.

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