Bozeman School Board trustees said Monday they hope to keep historic East Willson School from being torn down by working with developers who might renovate the century-old building into high-end condos or low-income housing.

Trustees asked the staff to come back March 4 with a recommendation on how to proceed with one of four developers who have expressed interest in trying to fix up the original Gallatin County High School, a handsome red brick building that needs millions of dollars in renovations.

When the staff asked if the board would consider proposals that might include tearing down the old school, Trustee Denise Hayman said she still wants to find a way to save it. Several years ago, she said, scores of community members showed up who were passionate about saving the old school.

“I’m not interested in tearing down the building,” Hayman said. “I’m willing to look at it, but in my heart of hearts I’d like to see it preserved.” Trustee Wendy Tage said she loves the old building, too, and wants to see it saved, but her first obligation is to do what’s best for the education of Bozeman children.

Jim Syth, owner of Bridger Builders, one of four developers who last year answered the district’s call for informal proposals, said he wouldn’t be interested in tearing down East Willson.

“That building is too special to the community,” Syth said. “Tearing that building down would be real sad for the city of Bozeman.”

Syth has proposed renovating it as high-end condominiums and said he has already spent $10,000 having architects from Missoula and Billings inspect the building. But to get a real idea of renovation costs, he said he’d need to hire mechanical and structural engineers and other experts, a $50,000 investment. Syth said he couldn’t do that without a commitment from the school district to work with his company.

Jeff Rupp, president of the nonprofit Human Resource Development Council, which proposed transforming East Willson into affordable rentals, said this year’s deadline for applying for federal low-income housing grants or tax credits has passed, so HRDC or any developer proposing affordable or senior housing would have to wait until next year. Rupp suggested the School Board work with someone like Syth, who is well-known in the community.

Time is important, Syth said, because the construction industry is starting to turn around and the cost of materials and labor is starting to rise.

On another issue, trustees heard from four parents concerned that their children may have to change schools when attendance boundaries are redrawn to accommodate the opening of Bozeman’s eighth elementary school.

Superintendent Rob Watson said the public would have more chances to comment on the boundary changes at a meeting tonight at 6 p.m. at Hyalite School and Wednesday at noon at Longfellow School. The School Board will dedicate its Feb. 25 meeting to discussing the issue, before it makes a decision in March.

Three possible maps are being considered, which can be seen on the district’s website. There would be no changes for Whittier and Hawthorne schools, but attendance boundaries would change for Hyalite, Morning Star, Emily Dickinson, Irving and Longfellow schools.

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