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Phillip Hogsett, David Roberts and Charlie Reed, from left, of TC Glass install new windows in Lowell Elementary School recently. The old school building is being refurbished as an attached addition is being built.

A sharp, cold breeze slid through the open windows and hit construction workers as site superintendent Brad O'Neill handed each of them a FireBall candy.

They were installing new windows on the 107-year-old Lowell Elementary School one recent morning, bundled up against the single-digit temperatures. 

Lowell and Franklin are the largest projects Missoula County Public Schools is undertaking at the moment, each $11.3 million efforts that will completely overhaul the schools. 

Franklin was demolished this summer, except for its gym. A section of Lowell was demolished but the original building is intact, with extensive renovations happening inside, as well as an addition on the north side.

The two projects are part of MCPS' Smart Schools 2020 initiative, updating all 22 schools and facilities thanks to $158 million in bonds that voters passed last fall.


In the first year of construction, the district launched 16 projects.

Five will be almost entirely finished by the end of 2016 – Chief Charlo, Paxson, Jefferson, Mount Jumbo and Seeley-Swan – with another, Rattlesnake, wrapping up right before school resumes Jan. 3 after winter break.

Some minor work and security upgrades will continue this spring.

Chief Charlo's entrance was redone, making it more secure and more obvious. The school was rewired for internet and open areas were turned into learning labs. Paxson has a new classroom addition and a more secure entrance. Seeley-Swan has a new theater, as well as boiler and structural upgrades.

Rattlesnake's overhaul was in two phases this fall, adding classrooms, renovating others, creating open learning spaces and other structural and technical upgrades.

This summer there were five re-roofing projects at Big Sky, Hellgate, Lewis and Clark, Meadow Hill and Washington, as well as a new track and field at the MCPS Stadium and upgrades at the Agriculture Education Center near Big Sky.

Jefferson and Mount Jumbo needed to be updated to be used as swing spaces for Franklin and Lowell students, respectively. 

Franklin and Lowell began right after school was let out this summer.

Today, the bones of a school are taking shape at the Franklin site, with walls nearly enclosing the space. They expected to start pouring the second floor this week. Cold weather won't stop Jackson Contractor Group, as they have a hard deadline in August.

The same goes for Lowell, where concrete has been poured for the new addition on the Phillips Street side, which will house administration and grades K-1 on the first floor and grades 2-3 on the second floor. It will also be the new entrance.

At the same time, crews are overhauling the interior of the original building. Walking through, there are messages scrawled on the walls – from Lowell students before they moved out this summer.

They're messages of love for the school, funny drawings and praise for the teachers, including "Best 5th grade teachers" on a post between two second-floor classrooms.

Lowell Elementary 3

Lowell Elementary students scrawled messages on the walls before moving out this summer, and before the school's massive overhaul this school year. They were messages of love for the school, including this one, "Best 5th grade teachers," on the second floor.


Architects and general contractors are starting to line up for the 2017 projects, which include Cold Springs, Russell, Washington, Hellgate, Sentinel and Willard.

There are more re-roofing projects on deck for this summer, too, at Rattlesnake, Jefferson, C.S. Porter, Sentinel and Hawthorne.

Last month, voters gave the OK for MCPS to buy land in the Lower Miller Creek area for the new Cold Springs school. The district still needs a subdivision exemption in order to carve the 8-acre parcel.

"We can't actually close until the lot lines are drawn," said Superintendent Mark Thane.

He hopes they'll close by March, though there's a 90-day extension in the buy-sell agreement that goes to June if needed. In the interim, Cold Springs staff will work with A&E Architects to develop the new school. Late this spring, they plan to hire a general contractor, and the new school is expected to be finished by fall 2018.

Once Cold Springs kids move out of the current building, Thane said it could be used as a swing space when Meadow Hill goes under construction.

Jackson Contractor Group was chosen as the general contractor/construction manager this month and construction will begin in late spring.

At a school board meeting this summer, architects said Hellgate is expected to wrap up by December 2018. 

"It will be an occupied facility, so that creates an additional challenge," Thane said of the construction that will happen during the school year. "The conversion from steam heat will also be extensive. That will touch every part of the school, basically, with new piping."

At the December school board meeting, trustees approved soliciting requests for qualification for architect design services at Sentinel and Willard, as well as initiating work with an architect on the Russell project. Dowling Studio Architects was approved this fall for Washington's design.


Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Thane stands in the new addition to Lowell School recently.

The field at MCPS Stadium was wrapped up this fall, but crews couldn't finish the track due to weather.

"We had the rainiest October on record," Thane said. "They needed three successive days of warm, dry weather."

The track is expected to be finished in April, he said. Track practice starts in March, so the district is working with University of Montana's Dornblaser Field for temporary practice while the high school track is wrapped up.

MCPS also hopes to finish the processing kitchen at the Agriculture Education Center this summer; right now they're waiting on permits from the Department of Environmental Quality.

After this school year, Franklin and Lowell students will return to their home schools from the swing spaces at Jefferson and Mount Jumbo. Jefferson houses the early learning program.

"We want to see, long-term, Jefferson becoming an early childhood center," Thane said. "There's not a tremendous amount of hope that the Legislature will expand early childhood education (in the upcoming session), but we'd like to explore it as a district."

Mount Jumbo previously was leased by Walla Walla College. It was closed as an elementary school in 2004.

"There's no definite yet about Jumbo," Thane said. "In the long-term we would love to see population growth in east Missoula, and an area to sustain that school."

For the moment, though, the district will likely look for a tenant to lease the space.

"That's the forecast," said operations and maintenance supervisor Burley McWilliams.

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Reporter for the Missoulian