Years of effort to save century-old East Willson School will take a significant step forward Monday when the Bozeman School Board votes on meeting a legal requirement for selling the historic redbrick building.

School officials have been discussing a possible sale of the building to Bridger Builders of Bozeman since last March.

While those negotiations are not complete, administrators wrote in a memo to the School Board trustees that “it is anticipated that a buy-sell agreement will be presented to the Board in February.”

Jim Syth, president of Bridger Builders, said his company is interested in renovating the old school into “nice” residential condominiums, but he can't say too much until an agreement is signed.

“It is really exciting,” Syth said. “It's neat to be able, hopefully, to save this building.”

School Superintendent Rob Watson is recommending that School Board trustees vote Monday night to declare that they plan to sell or otherwise dispose of the east half of Willson School and some of the land around it because it has become “obsolete, undesirable or unsuitable for school purposes.”

That would allow administrators to take the next legal step by advertising the disposal or sale of the property.

“If successful, the sale will move the building from being an underutilized public liability to a private tax-paying, living community,” administrators said in their memo.

The proposed sale only affects the redbrick, east half of Willson School, built in 1902 and 1918, which was the original Gallatin County High School. It does not affect the concrete addition built in the late 1930s, which includes Willson Auditorium and the central school administrative offices.

In 1986, engineers recommended demolishing East Willson because it would cost more to bring it up to code than to build a new school. Engineers and architects estimated that cost at $2.2 million in 1986, at $3.3 million to $4.6 million in 2000, and at $6 million in 2012.

Over the years, some trustees have talked about wanting to save the historic landmark on Bozeman's Main Street, and some have expressed concern about spending limited school dollars on a building that is empty or used only for storage.

In 2012 the School Board considered whether to renovate, sell or demolish East Willson. Trustees decided to seek proposals from developers interested in preserving or redeveloping it.

Four proposals were submitted, and in March 2013 the School Board chose to move ahead with one, Bridger Builders, to see if a sale could be negotiated. Originally given four months, the talks have taken 10.

The School Board meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the boardroom of Willson School.

The complete agenda can be seen online.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that East Willson School once housed Bozeman’s science and technology magnet school and the Bridger Alternative Program. Those student programs were housed in the newer, west half of Willson School.