Col. Falls considers elementary school proposals

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Columbia Falls School District is zeroing in on facility plans for its two elementary schools, which are facing aging infrastructure, building security concerns, and, in some years, overcrowding.

Last week a long-range facility planning committee met and looked at six scenarios for improving Glacier Gateway Elementary and three for Ruder Elementary. The concepts ranged from basic remodeling to building a new school to replace Glacier Gateway.

In each scenario, planners from L’Heureux Page Werner presented layout concepts and outlined the scope of each proposal with total project cost estimates. The estimates detailed what amount would go toward remodeling and new construction, in addition to square footage.

“I want to preface this by saying when you walk through your buildings you do a wonderful job of really keeping them looking good. Behind the walls is a whole other story, especially in Glacier Gateway,” said planner Steve L’Heureux.

L’Heureux Page Werner also led the facility-planning process for Kalispell, Whitefish and Somers-Lakeside school districts, which are now in various stages of construction.

By the end of the two-hour meeting, the committee composed of school board trustees, staff and community members provided planners with direction in which proposals to further refine before presenting them in a community forum scheduled at 6 p.m. Feb. 13 at Columbia Falls Junior High School, 1805 Talbot Road.

At this point, planners said it is important not to fixate on layout, which will evolve as more input is received.

The proposed concepts take into account a demographic study completed in November 2018.

Participants appeared to be in agreement to refine concepts that encompass both new construction and remodeling to accommodate up to 644 students.

Glacier Gateway, located at 440 Fourth Ave W., is composed of two buildings. Kindergarten through third grade is housed in a one-story building believed by the district to have been constructed in the 1950s. Next door, fourth- and fifth-graders attend school in a two-story building constructed in 1940. This building originally served as a high school and also was a junior high for a period of time.

Ruder, located at 1500 12th Ave. W., was built in 1974, with the last major construction project being a classroom and gymnasium addition in 1995.

For Glacier Gateway, the comments — which included input from Principal Penni Anello — leaned toward a $19 million concept that encompasses approximately 41,915 square feet of new construction in a two-story addition that incorporates break-out spaces; maker labs; a dining/commons area and centralized library/media center, in addition to classrooms.

“It’s keeping everything from the existing gym, north, but not utilizing the older portions of the gym — so, one gym. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t use that gym, but we’re doing the work here,” L’Heureux said, pointing at a layout on display. “That would stay the same.”

A segment at the end of an existing corridor of classrooms would be set aside and undeveloped, with the thought it would be ideal as a future prekindergarten space if it ever became mandated.

For Ruder, Principal Brenda Krueger asked if parts from two different concepts could be achieved. The two concepts ranged from $8 million to $12.8 million. Planners suggested a $10 million price point that would still modernize the facility and include 21st-century learning features such as maker labs and breakout spaces while accommodating enrollment. This route appeared to be amenable to people in the audience.

The non-operating Canyon Elementary in Hungry Horse is also part of the district’s elementary facilities. Closed in 2011, the school is now rented by the district to community organizations. Columbia Falls School District Superintendent Steve Bradshaw said the district plans to survey families in the Canyon and West Glacier to learn if they would prefer to reopen the Canyon Elementary building, however, he said it would take at least a couple of hundred students to make it financially feasible to operate.

A bond issue could go before voters in September, according to Bradshaw. A $12 million bond issue that funded construction of the junior high comes off the tax rolls in 2020.

The school district is also taking into consideration a request by the Boys & Girls Club of Glacier Country to donate property so it can build an estimated $5 million facility near Ruder.

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

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