After two years of planning, $14 million bond proposal goes before Whitefish voters
A Big Vote for a Dilapidated School
By Myers Reece, 2-29-12
Click the photo or use the arrows to see more images from Whitefish High School.
WHITEFISH – Bayard Dominick had just finished taking two visitors on a tour of Whitefish High School’s dilapidated 1950s era C-Wing, through the musty hallways dotted with garbage cans set out to catch water leaking from the ceiling, when he arrived at a classroom in the A-Wing.
Dominick, a planning consultant for the proposed Whitefish High School reconstruction project, pointed inside the room, where class was in midsession.
“There’s wastewater seeping up through the floor,” he said, while trying to find the proper word to describe the dirty water emerging from failed pipes below. He finally arrived at a word: “Nastiness. It’s nastiness coming up through the tiles.”
There is a long list of problems at the aging high school, as Dominick illustrated in detail throughout his hour-long tour. This much has been clear for quite some time, but what hasn’t always been clear is how to go about fixing them. Or, more precisely, how to pay for fixing them.
Two school bond proposals to upgrade the school – in 2004 and 2008 – failed in Whitefish. But after more than two years of planning, including considerable input from the public, a team led by Dominick and Chris Kelsey, both from Steeplechase Development Advisors, has developed a proposal that supporters are hoping will make the third time a charm.
Whitefish voters are being asked to decide on a $14 million bond that would help pay for a proposed $19 million school reconstruction project. The project is a mix of renovation and new construction, with the aim of ushering the school into the modern world and eliminating a number of safety and health hazards. The end product will be a two-story facility measuring 120,000 square feet, the same as the current school.
Mail-in ballots were sent out Feb. 28 and must be returned to the school district by poll closing on March 15.
Dominick said past bonds, which were $10.5 million in 2004 and $21.5 million in 2008, lacked the extensive planning and clear vision of the current proposal. He and other supporters believe the amount of planning and public participation, the project’s collaborative funding efforts and the fact that both interest rates and construction costs are low have combined to give the current plan a sense of logistical immediacy and sensibility.
“There’s never been a more affordable time,” Dominick said. “And if you don’t do anything now, you’re going to have to do something pretty darn soon.”
A fairly innovative funding process can be credited for lowering the bond to $14 million, rather than the full price tag of $19 million. To lower the costs for taxpayers, the city council made the uncommon move of pitching in $2.5 million of tax-increment financing (TIF) funds, the school district contributed $1.2 million of its own TIF money and other grants were secured. Additionally, $500,000 is being raised from private donations for the school’s assembly and performance hall.
For the owner of a roughly median-price home valued at $245,000, the bond will cost $49.99 per year, according to a tax-impact analysis. But Dominick points out that the Muldown Elementary School bond is being retired, which will take five mills off the tax rolls. Factoring that in, the increase in taxes for the owner of a $245,000 house will be $35.32 annually, based on the current expected interest rate of 2.75 percent on a 20-year bond.
The DLR Group, an architectural design firm with offices across the nation, is heading up the design process, along with Kalispell’s Jackola Engineering and Architecture.
In a town where issues are often polarizing and debates contentious, a diverse cross-section of the community is rallying around the school project. A website at http://www.voteyeswhitefishhighschoolbond.com offers a page of “endorsements” in which residents of varying backgrounds and political persuasions offer their support.
On the website, Don Kaltschmidt of the Don K car dealership says it’s “time to show support for our town,” while former state Sen. Dan Weinberg advises people to “grasp this opportunity to provide our kids with a high school we can be proud of.” North Valley Hospital CEO Jason Spring says “if we do not put our efforts and our resources into improving our educational system, we are failing our children and the future of our community.”
Bob DePratu, another former state senator, and his wife Bea say their three children and three of their grandchildren attended all 12 grades in the Whitefish school system. The DePratus say the “senior citizens of Whitefish supported all of the mill levies, so that our children could receive an excellent education.”
“Now it is our turn, as senior citizens of Whitefish, to return the favor,” the DePratus say in their endorsement, “by giving our wholehearted support to the passing of the levy for the new high school to give the next generation of Whitefish children the best opportunity for learning possible.”
One argument that has been widely touted on behalf of the bond is economic development. Proponents of this theory say, simply, it’s hard to attract and retain the people who will drive the local economy if the school is falling apart. This argument has helped bring together the diverse set of interests.
“It’s fun to see people who just a few months ago were fighting over city council issues are now really coming together on this campaign,” Dominick said.
While much of the recent public attention given to the project has been supportive, as demonstrated in the website endorsements and letters to the editor, some public statements have described the $14 million bond as too high. Charlie Abell and Bob Brown both wrote letters to the editor asking for a different bond option.
Brown advocated asking the school board “to present us with a better plan.” He acknowledged the school’s structural deficiencies, but believes the current proposal is off base in addressing educational needs.
“Education needs to be about moving up achievement,” Brown wrote, “not keeping up appearances.”
Abell, the former president of Whitefish Credit Union, was the lone school board member in opposition to the $14 bond. In a letter to the editor, he said the school’s needs could be met with less money and said a “real political machine has been organized to quickly muscle the high priced plan into construction.”
“Education is priceless,” Abell wrote. “It shouldn’t be unnecessarily expensive. Vote no. Force the board to give us a more realistic building proposal.”
In the end, Superintendent Kate Orozco says the argument boils down to the fact that both the kids and teachers clearly need a better learning environment. And she believes the bond is the right answer at the right time.
“Each time I sit in a classroom at the high school when students are wearing their winter jackets or custodians are moving the buckets under leaky roofs,” Orozco said, “my hope is that someday soon our high school will be worthy of the promise and talent of our Whitefish students.”