The structural problems of Central Elementary School could be an opportunity for a big step forward in Helena education.
That was part of the message of architects presented to the Helena School District trustees Tuesday with the pros and cons of renovating or rebuilding the school, which until this spring had operated in some form on its Warren Street site since the 1880s.
“We’re to the point of actually starting to see it, even though it’s a long way away, we’re starting to make decisions that will make positive effects on the kids,” Superintendent Kent Kultgen said near the close of a two-hour meeting, attended by about 35 people.
Since the threat last fall of the transformation of Central from a school to a site for administrative or community uses, area residents, parents and former students have highlighted the importance of the city’s oldest school to one of Helena’s oldest neighborhoods. With the revelation in March of structural deficiencies and the sudden transfer of the students to other locations, the school buildings themselves appeared in jeopardy.
Tim Meldrum and Klint Fisher of the Helena firm Schlenker and McKittrick Architects, which has experience in historic preservation, told the board that the building could be renovated and still fulfill many of the criteria the district wants. And renovation could cost less than brand-new construction.
With a warning that the figures were mainly for study, discussion and comparison, they estimated the cost of renovating the main school building and the Seventh Avenue Gymnasium at about $10.3 million, including $2.2 million just for critical structural upgrades to the school building.
Removing the structures and replacing them with new ones would cost an estimated $13.8 million.
The architects noted advantages and disadvantages with each option.
Renovation would better maintain the school’s identity and the historical fabric of the neighborhood.
“There’s so much history on this site,” said Fisher, whose own children attended the school; the younger one just finished up fifth grade, displaced with his classmates to Helena Middle School for the final months of the school year.
But renovation would involve limitations on what could be done with the space.
Specifically, Kultgen spoke of the district’s goal of a “21st century learning environment.” That means classrooms of a certain size (about 950 square feet) that are rectangular, not square, with non-allergenic materials, natural light, each with a big sink and water cooler and its own climate control, among other things. Those could be easier to achieve with new constriction, the architects said.
“But I think every time you come up with a statement about 21st century learning in a new construction, there are probably creative ways to think about it in a renovation as well, and using a building as a learning tool,” Meldrum said.
New construction could also accommodate modern security needs, such as having fewer, more centralized entrances.
The earlier proposal to repurpose Central for a nonschool function came about in part because of the changing nature of the district. Sixty percent of the district’s students live north of the railroad tracks, Kultgen said, but 60 percent of the district’s facilities are south of the tracks. That has resulted in long bus rides for some kids, and the addition of a third kindergarten class at Jim Darcy Elementary in the North Valley last August.
But the elementary school population is relatively stable. Kultgen said that group is expected to rise just 2.4 percent between now and 2017, and then to decline by a similar amount in the five years following. That’s despite a record kindergarten enrollment for this fall, swelling classes in 10 of the districts 11 elementary schools above the state standard of 20 students, and forcing the district to hire additional para-educators to accommodate them.
Five people connected with local historic preservation efforts spoke to the board in favor of renovation. No one rose in favor of new construction.
Patty Dean, director of community preservation at the Montana Preservation Alliance, said that in 1995 another old building in town faced major problems and a question about its future.
“It was in pretty tough shape. But the bulldozers didn’t come in, because it was the people’s house. It was the Montana state Capitol,” she said. ‘So I would urge you to consider saving the little people’s house, which is Central School.”
Chere Jiusto, the alliance’s executive director, said the architects’ presentation showed it’s feasible to save the structures. She also noted that about 250 historic structures were razed during Helena’s urban renewal in the early 1970s.
“And people even now talk about the buildings that were lost downtown with such emotion and such sadness at the loss, and you actually have a scenario in front of you where you can make a choice to keep the Central School and make it better and make it dynamic and exciting,” she said.
The former Helena High School was also on the site and was razed in the 1970s — by the school district, not as part of urban renewal.
Hal Jacobson, whose father, Herb Jacobson, worked to save some of those structures during Urban Renewal, called it the “flagship” of the school district.
Jacobson, a former legislator representing the area, said he and others are forming a group to advocate specifically for the saving of the building, and for the passage of a comprehensive bond issue that would also include other projects.
The board will make a decision — to renovate or to rebuild — at its meeting July 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Ray Bjork Learning Center at 1600 Eighth Avenue.