Hellgate High School in Missoula

Hellgate High School.

"The core idea of this project was to create a new heart for Hellgate."

After several meetings at Hellgate High School and discussions with the school's education innovation team (EIT) since March, that's what architect Don MacArthur felt was the goal.

Hellgate's overhaul, part of the $70 million high school bond narrowly approved by voters last November, is the largest of all of Missoula County Public Schools' bond projects, elementary or high school: $23.7 million.

"This is, to date, certainly the most challenging project we brought to the table, and will likely be one of the most challenging we face of the bond projects," said Superintendent Mark Thane.

Original estimates showed that $10.2 million would be for deferred maintenance, particularly replacing old steam boilers with modern, high-efficiency systems. Within the last month, Hellgate science teacher and co-chair of the school's EIT, Dave Oberbillig, said the team learned it would be closer to $17 million to $19 million (about 80 percent of the total budget).

MacArthur, founding partner of Missoula architecture firm MacArthur, Means & Wells, updated the MCPS trustees Tuesday night on the project.

Construction is slated to start in April 2017 and wrap up by December 2018.

They called in BrainSpaces founder and school planner Amy Yurko, who analyzed the master schedule and all of Hellgate's teaching spaces.

"The takeaways are that we actually have some additional capacity right now ... I think there's 79 teaching spaces and by her count, we would need about 66 for the current enrollment," MacArthur said. "If we were to go to 1,500 enrollment, we would need about 80.

"Is the right project trying to get more teaching spaces or is the right project to take on some other things in the building?"

That's why the bulk of the work will occur on the first floor, at the heart of the building.

They propose moving administration from the south end of the second floor to the east side of the first floor, just north of the current entrance off of Gerald Avenue. The library will move from the north end of the third floor to the center of the first, overlooking a large commons area that will create "a more humane environment than the current cafeteria."

In addition, a "great hall" will be sandwiched between the library and locker rooms, a multi-use space for cross-classroom collaboration, lectures, a black box theater, etc.

Oberbillig said the emphasis on – and rising expense of – deferred maintenance means "there will be much less at Hellgate in terms of 21st century education than we originally hoped for."

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The second and third floors won't see much of a change.

On the second floor, the area currently housing administration and counselors will be turned into a resource center. On the third floor, the current library area will be converted into four or five new classrooms. Two small rooms on the south end of the third floor will be combined into one classroom.

"In total here, you'll have about an equal number of teaching spaces that have been lost and gained," MacArthur said. "We think the ones we have gained are bigger and sometimes nicer, but there won't be more of them. I think the priorities as we were working through it as a team were to make really great common spaces, not necessarily make more teaching space, but make sure that we maintain."

They'll be cutting it close on the budget. Current projections show the Hellgate project is 3.6 percent over budget.

An MMW budget breakdown details the difference between original and current estimates. Initially, $12.6 million was planned for structural, electrical, mechanical, roof and technology work. Today, that's up to $16 million. That means addition and remodel work has been sliced from $9.5 million to $6.7 million.

"Where we started we thought there would be quite a bit of money to do additions and remodel," MacArthur said. "When you delve into it, we found new mechanical deficits in the building ... We're seeing that the mechanical area is growing and the only thing that really can shrink a little bit is what we're doing in additions and remodel."

The mechanical costs are coming in higher than anticipated due to "a bump in construction costs" since original estimates, as well as cost variances in different systems.

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MacArthur said MMW will look for ways "to economize" as design progresses.

"With a bond issue, we also have premium that comes with it," said MCPS executive director of business and operations Pat McHugh. "That provides potential to actually have outstanding debt in excess of the $158 million (combined total of elementary and high school bonds). It is not free money, but it does represent something in excess of debt."

He said the board can commit to spend the bond premium.

Those discussions have started internally, Thane said.

"As we get toward the end of the projects and after the second bond issuance, we will have to have a conversation about bond premium," Thane said.

If near the end of the projects MCPS finds money has been saved in some areas, they could go back and do non-construction work.

"We've gone a quarter of a century without classrooms being painted," said Karen Swanson, co-chair of the EIT and a Hellgate English teacher. "We have light fixtures that flicker and cause migraines in our students, I have a classroom where the average number of people in it is 28 every period of the day and I have three outlets. How many of you have more than that in your office?

"If there's some extra money, that's great. Those are the things that our staff said, if we don't do anything else, can we please have it look a little better? Can we please have a few outlets? And those are the things we compromised on as staff."

In a note they submitted to the board that outlines their concerns, Swanson and Oberbillig wrote about their hope that these issues are taken seriously so that "future projects should not suffer the same fate."

"We are sacrificing minimal room updates, save for technology, to have the heart of the building (our mechanical systems, roof, etc.) move into the 21st century," they wrote. "It means the soul – classrooms – will remain in the 19th century."

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Reporter for the Missoulian