District to pursue new middle school

by nathan oster

The Big Horn County School District No. 3 board of trustees has elected to pursue the construction of a new middle school rather than make the renovations to its existing building that were recommended by a consulting firm hired to do a capacity study of the GHS/GMS campus.

By unanimous vote, the board chose to “roll the dice,” so to speak, citing the age and condition of the current GMS building, the impact of the recommended renovation plan on current and future school programs, and an overriding concern that the district’s argument for a new GMS would be hurt by any improvements made now.

MOA Architecture, the consulting firm hired by the state to do the capacity study, had offered three options to the district:

1)        Limited renovations to GMS and the Quigg Building, with the biggest change being a relocation of the GMS computer labs to the Quigg Building, into a classroom now used by industrial arts teacher Ralph Wensky.

2)        Limited renovation to GMS, the Quigg Building and GHS, with the biggest change being the incorporation of the GMS media center into the GHS media center along with extensive renovations to the GMS building.

3)        Construction of a new GMS somewhere on the existing campus.  The district would prefer it to be built directly south of the high school, between GHS and the GMS Gym.  By doing so, it would enable the district to turn the existing GMS building into a central office that would house administrative staff.

During its March 12 discussion, the board never seriously considered Option 2. Supt. Barry Bryant said is was the worst of the three options, noting that it would require renovations to all three buildings (GMS, Quigg, GHS) and that it’s unlikely the work could be done over the course of a single summer.

Bryant began the discussion by noting that his preference was to follow the recommendation of the consultants — and to pursue Option 1, although he conceded that in his discussions around the district there was strong support for pursuing funding for a new school.

“The thing that worries me is, the way things are written right now, we don’t have a capacity issue (at GMS),” he said. “My worry is, we’re not going to get anything.”

He said the renovation plan recommended by the consultant would fix the issues of concern at the middle school, bring about much-needed improvements to the Quigg Building’s flooring and HVAC systems and — perhaps most importantly — be a “sellable” position in talks with the School Facility Commission.

Eddie Johnson, who sits on the school board and was a longtime teacher at GMS, disagreed.

“When (the existing GMS) was built, there were soil compaction issues — and those concern me,” he said. “I spent a lot of years there.  You can’t tell me if you’re going to put a bigger roof on something that it’s not going to affect the weight of the building.

“You’d be taking a 30-year-old building, putting $1.5 to $2 million into it — and then it’d be another 30 years before they’d even talk with us (about a new building).”

Bryant reiterated that a new building would be a tougher sell to the SFC.  In 2009, GMS ranked No. 7 on an SFC needs index.  The following year, after criteria changes were made, GMS fell all the way to No. 136.

While the SFC is expected to release a new needs index this week, Bryant said that even if GMS ranks higher than it did in 2010, it wouldn’t guarantee anything. “Some of the districts (that ranked high in 2010) still haven’t got their buildings built,” he said.

After Johnson reiterated his concerns over the longevity of the building, Bryant conceded that “an argument could be made either way.”

Trustees were also troubled by the impact of the proposed renovation on the Quigg Building, where Wensky currently uses the classroom identified as the landing spot for the GMS computer lab for CAD instruction.

MOA’s recommended option, Option 1, also called for upgrades to the Quigg Building’s HVAC system (to better filter dust) and the other industrial arts classroom used by Wensky at the present time.

Wensky, who attended the meeting, said he uses the CAD classroom more than just a single class period every day. Also, he said the plan would prevent him from starting kids with manual drafting instruction and Karyne Dunbar’s use of the lab for a graphic design class that she teaches.  “She isn’t using it this year, but she’d like to be back in there (next year),” Wensky said.

Wensky said losing the classroom would also end talk of any potential expansion of the vocational programming at GMS.  “We’ve always had a dream to add another person to teach ag or something along those lines,” Wensky said. “If you take a lot of that building for GMS, it would cut back on what we can do vocationally.”

That struck a chord with Mike Meredith, the board chairman and a former industrial arts teacher at GHS. “I lived in there for 20 years,” he said, adding that during his time the vocational program was hurt by the loss of a classroom that was eventually turned into an art classroom.

“Now here we are talking about treading on vocational again,” he said. “We have to sacrifice … but it always seems to be at the expense of the vocational side.  It hurts.”

Johnson said the board must do what’s best for its kids.

“I have a real problem with renovating that building and trying to send kids somewhere else for a class period,” he said. “You lose four to five minutes or more of instruction time every time with the movement — and it would affect high school programs, too.  I’d like to see us have an ag  program again.

“I have a real problem trying to make a 30-year-old building into a 60-year-old building.”

Trustee Jamie Flitner asked how following the renovation plan would affect the district’s campaign for a new building.  Bryant noted that GMS ranked 136th in 2010 — “and if we touched it or put money into it, we’d probably fall to 240 or 250.”

Bryant asked the board to rank the three options, saying, “Whatever you choose, we’re going to fight for like it’s the only drink of water in town and we’re thirsty.”

Flitner said her preference was go for a new building, saying that it’s been proven that state formulas don’t work. “I think we should roll the dice and wait,” she said. “We need a new building.  We need more space.”

Her fellow board members agreed, ultimately voting to pursue the new construction option.

Bryant said he’d fight for a new building in his April presentation to the SFC, adding that the districts “who continually knock on the door” are often the ones that ultimately get building projects approved by the SFC.

“The court says we need to have nice facilities for all the kids in the state,” Meredith said. “Well when you make kids leave their building and move their computer lab into a dusty, dirty building, I just think it’s contrary to what the court says.”