Schools get $1.5 million for building projects

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Three Flathead County schools have money for building, thanks to grants from the state.

Somers Middle School, Fair-Mont-Egan and Whitefish High School each received a Quality Schools Facility Grant.

The grant program, administered by the state Department of Commerce, distributes more than $11 million to 30 Montana schools over the next biennium. Of that, nearly $1.5 million will go to Flathead schools.

The Somers-Lakeside School District received a $418,142 grant that will be used to replace most of the roof at Somers Middle School.

The roof over the school's newest wing, which was built in the 1990s, still is in good shape, Superintendent Teri Wing said. But the roof over wings built in the 1950s and 1960s will be replaced.

The district already has done some roof repair work. Last spring, Somers received a $10,000 grant to make repairs after the school was forced to keep buckets in the hallways to catch drips in the 1950s wing. But the work done then was only meant to be a patch.

"They essentially told us it would last a year. It wasn't a permanent fix," Wing said.

The district has put out a request for qualifications and hopes to soon secure an architectural engineer to oversee the project. School officials hope the bulk of the work will be finished before school starts this fall, although some outside work might not be wrapped up until mid-October, Wing said.

The project was much needed, she added. There is mold in the ceiling and water has saturated the insulation and leaked into the school.

"Even at that, it would have been a tough sell in this economy" to ask taxpayers to support a bond issue, Wing said.

Voters in 2007 rejected Somers' $7.125 million bond request that would have paid for a new building on the middle school campus and made improvements to the existing building.

"We're just thrilled that we're going to be able to do this with grant money," Wing said.

Fair-Mont-Egan School will put its $379,110 grant toward two new classrooms, a central hallway, an administrative office entry area connecting the school's two buildings and a new wastewater system.

"It's exciting. It's going to look really nice," district clerk Susan Clanton said.

Kalispell-based Hammerquist Casalegno is the construction manager at risk, she said; Jackola Engineering & Architecture, also of Kalispell, is the architect.

School officials expect to break ground at a ceremony at noon Tuesday, the last day of school and the day of Fair-Mont-Egan's community picnic.

The project will cost about $567,000; the portion not covered by the grant will be paid for out of the district building reserve, flex and general funds and from one-time-only money for deferred maintenance.

None of that will impact taxpayers, who last year rejected the school's $1.9 million bond request. That bond would have paid for the current project plus a new gym, expanded library and computer lab and a new music room.

The current building project will give Fair-Mont-Egan's seventh- and eighth-graders new classrooms, allowing special education and Title I students to move into the vacated rooms. Special education and Title I instruction has been taking place in hallways, the gym, the lunchroom stage - "just about everywhere except the right places," Clanton said.

"These are the kids who should be focused," she said. "They will have their own rooms now, and the aides will not be lugging cartons of materials around."

School officials hope the project will be wrapped up before school starts next fall. To give contractors a little extra time, school will start later than usual on Sept. 6, Clanton said. Teachers have agreed to extend the school day by 10 minutes, which will allow Fair-Mont-Egan to achieve the annual instructional hours required by state law without making students stay late into June.

The $658,019 grant Whitefish High School received from the state will be put toward the district's proposed high school renovation project.

The Whitefish school board committed $212,500 in Whitefish Tax Increment Finance funds to the project as a requirement of the grant application, bringing the total amount committed to the renovation project so far to $870,519. Revamping the high school could cost anywhere from $16.9 million to $19.5 million, based on plans developed last year by Jackola, DLR Group of Seattle and a community committee.

The grant from the state is specifically for renovating the high school gym and will be used for that project whether or not the entire renovation moves forward, according to a press release from Steeplechase Development Advisors, the consultant planning the redevelopment project.

The gym was chosen as the grant's focus because school officials agreed it was one part of the existing high school that should be saved. All three alternatives developed by the architecture firms and committee include the existing gym with some improvements.

The grant will pay to replace bleachers and the hardwood floor plus install new ventilation equipment and replace missing emergency lights and signs. The gym will also get a new scoreboard and windows to provide natural light.

There is a catch: To qualify for the grant, Whitefish has to raise at least $80,000 from other sources, according to the press release.

The grant helps fulfill a promise from the district to explore several fundraising options for the renovation project before asking community members to support a bond issue. Voters in 2008 rejected a $21.5 million bond request and in 2003 denied a $10.4 million issue to renovate and expand the high school.

"This award demonstrates how hard the district is working to find other sources of funding before asking the community for support," high school Principal Dave Carlson said in the press release. "And this grant is particularly positive, because it is not contingent on the larger project, so no matter what else happens, the Bulldogs will be getting a first-class gymnasium."

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by email at

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