Leaky roofs, cramped classrooms, 140-degree crawlspaces and security issues were among the concerns highlighted as School District 6 administrators took the Hungry Horse News on a tour of all three area elementary school campuses Feb. 27.
With the district looking to ask taxpayers to support a bond issue later this year that could cost as much as $34 million to fix the problems, it wants potential voters to understand the needs looking to be addressed.
While each of the three campuses faces its own set of problems, the main issued being faced by the Columbia Falls elementary schools are overcrowding and age.
The issue of age is much more prevalent at Glacier Gateway, where the building is literally falling apart in places. The oldest part of the building was constructed as a high school in 1940 with additions in 1952 and 1955.
Classrooms throughout Glacier Gateway are notoriously hard to heat with the school’s aging steam heating system, but temperature regulation in the old high school area is particularly hard, where teachers say temperatures in classrooms can reach as high as the mids 90s in the early and late parts of the school year and be as cold as near freezing in the winter.
According to Glacier Gateway Principal Penni Anello, Maintenance Supervisor Hank Donovan has done an outstanding job fixing and rebuilding the heating system in an attempt to deal with the problem, but there is only so much that can be done with the aging equipment. In order to service the steam pipes that distribute heat throughout the school, Donovan and other maintenance workers have to crawl through dirty, cramped tunnels beneath the building in 140 degree heat or higher. Workers are made to enter the tunnels in pairs, one near the entrance acting as a “spotter” in case the one inside the tunnel passes out.
“We are trying to run the system the right way now, but all of the old Band-Aids are falling off,” Donovan said. “We didn’t put them on in the first place, so some of them we don’t know exactly what they were trying to do. It’s horrible.”
Unfortunately, Glacier Gateway’s problems do not end with the heating system. Plumbing has also caused a number of headaches, most recently when the school attempted to provide showers for homeless students and smaller sinks and toilets for kindergarten students. Both times the pipes could not handle the strain.
“We have 40 kids who live in campers without running water and we can’t even provide them a place to shower. It’s so frustrating,” Anello said. “I want to provide a place where these kids can come and feel their basic needs are being met so they can learn. I’m just struggling.”
While not exactly a plumbing issue, the fourth-grade classrooms in the upstairs of the old high school also have to contend with having only one boys bathroom stall and three girls stalls for approximately 80 students.
The issues to do not end there, as countless leaks have opened up in the school’s roof, leading to a number of flooded ceiling panels with extensive water damage.
“It’s not going to last much longer. We can only keep doing what we have been doing for so long,” Anello said.
At Ruder Elementary, the school faces its own set of maintenance issues, but the largest problem at the school is overcrowding.
Originally built in 1974, there were extensive additions in 1991 and 1996. While the school is considerably smaller than Glacier Gateway (47,859 square feet to Glacier Gateway’s 70,551), it houses only 25 less students, leading to an inevitable space crunch.
More than 30 special education students from various grade levels are taught in a space smaller than a full-size classroom where fabric partitions are used to keep students from distracting each other while they work. One program is run out of a cramped technology closet. The nurse’s office is in a closet. There are no conference areas for teachers to meet with parents. The list of ways the school has come up to deal with space issues goes on and on.
Perhaps the most telling is the use of a bus entryway as a classroom for a kindergarten specialist teacher who teaches language, phonics and basic reading skills. According to Principal Brenda Krueger, each morning, the school rolls out a carpet over the space so the students can have a “fairly clean space” to sit and learn. When they are done, the carpet must be rolled back up and stored so kids can use the entryway at the end of the day to get to their buses.
Krueger said the overcrowding issue is most apparent in the current second grade class, which has 80 students. With only three third-grade teachers and classrooms, the school would have to be above the state accreditation level of 26 students per classroom next year.
Ruder school also has no dedicated lunchroom area, meaning the school gym must double as an eating area for several hours each day when it can not be used to teach classes.
In addition to the space issues, Ruder Elementary is also facing a battle against a leaky roof According to Donovan, he had to fix more than 80 leaks above a single classroom recently.
Another issue being faced by both schools is one of security. The recent technology levy has provided for the installation of security cameras and a buzzer entry system at both schools, but both principals say security is not where it could be.
“We try to catch everyone that comes in here,” Anello said. “But if it was someone who was truly a threat, it would be very hard for us to stop them once they are in the building.”
Anello said the school also has a problem with cars turning off the street and into the school’s playground area, saying that it happens at least once a week.
While the possibility of reopening the Canyon School in Hungry Horse could alleviate some of the overcrowding issues at Glacier Gateway and Ruder, Superintendent Steve Bradshaw says the district would still have find a way to deal with the other issues facing the schools.
“We would lose money by doing it, but we could reopen the Canyon School for some of our elementary students,” he said. “We would still have the same problems at Glacier Gateway and Ruder, but with less money to address them.”