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School district transportation and maintenance departments relocate

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | September 19, 2023 12:00 AM

Kalispell Public Schools’ transportation, facilities and maintenance departments recently moved into new facilities at 124 School Station Court. It is also where the district will also centralize its shipping and receiving.

The approximately $7 million construction project and land purchase were paid for using money from the transportation budget and interlocal fund that was set aside for the project over a few years. The property, just over five acres, includes an approximately 7,400-square-foot transportation facility, a 9,600-square-foot maintenance facility and around 4,000 square feet of covered storage for equipment.

Facilities Director Greg Naslund said the new buildings are a major improvement that will allow the departments to run more efficiently. For bus mechanics, a new shop will provide a safer work environment.

“It’s like night and day,” Naslund said.

The impetus for the project was the city of Kalispell’s request for the school district to vacate city-owned property south of Legends Stadium, which is part of a shop complex that serves several city departments. The school had been parking and repairing its fleet of 28 buses at the site.

The project got rolling in 2021, with the land purchase that was meant to centralize the departments and buses in one location. The departments were previously spread between the city-owned property by Legends and the district-owned property on East Washington Street and Meridian Court.

On the first day of the 2023-24 school year, it was still a transitional period for the departments has they moved into the new space.

“Even though you’ve got a blueprint, everything in one spot doesn't actually get to go that way,” he said, noting that one of the reasons is the departments are short staffed.

Five full-time bus drivers, two maintenance engineers and seven custodial positions and one part-time custodial position still needed to be filled, according to Naslund and Transportation Director Annie Doolan.

By mid-morning the yellow buses were neatly lined up in rows of parking spaces next to retractable cord reel stations that will be used to power engine block heaters in cold weather. The complex can accommodate up to 50 buses if needed in the future. Meanwhile, the district continues contracting other companies to transport students.

For the buses, the complex is a one-stop shop for parking, maintenance, repairs, washing and for the propane buses, fueling. The district currently owns six propane buses.

“We’ll probably order three to four more,” Doolan said.

Diesel buses will still be used for long distances such as field trips or competitions.

“We decided to go with propane [over electric] because of the efficiency and we don’t have to plug them in, in the wintertime,” he said.

Locating all the transportation services at one site has been great, Doolan said.

“As a supervisor, I am very happy to have all my staff under one roof,” she said. “It’s great for me to be able to see and easily interact with all the drivers if they need a change to their route or they need help figuring something out. They don’t have to drive across town now to talk to me or try to get through the phones.”

“Our mechanics are here, so just being able to talk to them quickly; what issues we are having; how to prioritize what we’re fixing,” she said, expressing gratitude to the school board and administrators for seeing the project through.

Relocating was a feat. About 3,500 students will ride a school bus this year, Doolan said. With the move, all routes had to be revised.

“A ton of effort went into this,” Naslund said. “We had to be here by Aug. 17 with all the buses because highway patrol does their annual inspections.”

Improved safety is evident when Naslund walks through the maintenance shop explaining different equipment and features the old location didn’t have such as a pit where mechanics can work underneath the buses, an automatic ventilation system on a timer, a parts washer and airlifts.

“This is a much safer building for what they do,” Naslund said.

Although mechanic Justin Wang hadn’t yet spent a lot of time in the shop, he said the pit will make a huge difference after he’s worked without one for about seven years.

“It will speed up service jobs,” he said.

Wang also mentioned the shop will be safer for other employees such as bus drivers by having a separate office building from the shop and wash bays.

“The breakroom was part of the [old] shop,” he said, which led to heavier foot traffic.

One of the changes to the project is closing down the district’s print shop, which was set to be relocated to the complex, due to increasing costs in challenges to keep positions filled, according to Naslund. Instead, space has been allocated for storing curriculum deliveries, he said, opening a door to a room with stacks of textbooks, workbooks and other educational materials to distribute to teachers as needed.

“It also used to go to Meridian Court to our building. So we would have 21 pallets of paper, all the curriculum, basically in four garage bays. Then, we had no place to park our vehicles,” he said.

In addition to curriculum, all package deliveries will go to School Station Court. It will also be where the mail room will be located. Previously, the mailroom was located in the basement of the central office building.

“We’re going to do a central shipping and receiving hub here,” Naslund said. “It allows us to consolidate everything that gets shipped to the schools. It should come here first and then we disperse it out.”

This way, Naslund said the district can be certain someone will be available at the site to receive the package, which was an issue during a long break like summer, for example.

“It also gives us some amount of control,” Naslund agreed, in tracking deliveries and what has been paid for or back ordered.

The property also provides offices and storage for maintenance and grounds employees and equipment.

“We’re going to stage this up for winter and summer work,” he said, standing in a space occupied by tractors for mowing lawns and shoveling snow and pallets of ice melt.

“This is the stuff that we had at the bus barn on the city property,” he said, noting that there was room for about one tractor in the city-owned property, otherwise everything else was stored outside.

He said potential theft was a regular worry although it wasn’t much of an issue. The School Station Court property is more secure with fencing, an automatic gate and security cameras.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

photo

Power stations for the school buses' block heaters line the parking lot outside Kalispell Public Schools' new transportation building on Wednesday, Aug. 30. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)