Students in Ennis all have a bit more elbow room now as the new school building is finally done after nearly two years of construction and a mass of controversy.
Students made the final move into the new building last month and are still getting used to their new digs, Ennis superintendent Doug Walsh said Monday.
As expected the new building has a substantial amount of upgrades from the old, including technology, space and organization. But probably the most important upgrade is safety, Walsh said.
The old school building, which was torn down to make way for the new school, was fraught with safety concerns and stability issues, he said.
In fact, just days after the students moved out of the old school, a rain storm partially collapsed a portion of the roof located over two classrooms, said Ennis K-8 principal Brian Hilton.
“It’s almost like that old girl held together just so we could get out of it,” Hilton said.
The construction work began on the new school in the summer of 2010 amid a swarm of controversy that in many ways still swirls now. The new school will cost taxpayers about $9 million. About half of that money comes from the school district’s adult education fund, which is funded by a non-voted levy. A recent opinion from Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said that using adult education funds for the construction of a new school was illegal.
School board members and Walsh have consistently said they believed that communication with the Montana Office of Public Instruction made it clear the parameters by which they could use non-voted tax money for school construction.
And despite the controversy, which has led to tense school board meetings and one civil lawsuit, the school construction continued to completion.
On Monday walking the halls of the new school, there wasn’t even a murmur of controversy. The silence of the hallways was only broken with the opening of a classroom door. Everything still had the sparkle of being new and fresh.
For the most part the entire construction project went smoothly, Walsh said. Langlas Construction from Bozeman was the construction manager on the project and finished ahead of schedule.
There’s a contingency fund being kept as sort of a guarantee by the school district for one year while some of the kinks get worked out and just in case something happens, he said.
The new school also has a variety of community meeting spaces, where community groups large and small can gather without disturbing school operations and without sacrificing the security of the students in the school, Walsh said.
And his hope is the community will take advantage of the new building and use it as much as possible.
“That’s what it’s here for,” Walsh said. “We have a ton of uses for it.”
From a student and teacher standpoint, the new school is a major upgrade, Hilton said.
One example is that each classroom has several places to get an Internet connection. In the old classrooms, there was only one connection per room.
The new classrooms are all equipped with a smart board, which are interactive whiteboards that allow teachers and students to have an interactive experience between doing work in front of the class and working on the computer.
“They’re a real useful tool that the majority of schools now have,” Hilton said.
Student safety is also a major upgrade with the new building, he said.
In the old school, the offices were situated down a long hall from the front entrance so visitors to the school had to walk almost to the back of the school to check in. In the new school the office is right inside the entrance and no one can get into the building without checking in at the office, Hilton said.
And though everybody is still settling in, there is a great sense of excitement and gratitude from both the teachers and the students, he said.
“We’re just thankful,” Hilton said. “We realize that there’s controversy surrounding it but I hope people don’t lose sight of the fact we have a beautiful building that everybody can utilize and be thankful for.”
Still, there are a few projects left to complete. Some landscaping waits to be finished and the new playground still needs to be built in the back of the building. Part of the landscaping process will be the creation of raised garden beds as part of Madison Farm to Fork’s education program in the school.