The rumble and rattle of heavy earth-moving machinery filled the hot summer air Monday when Bozeman public school officials held a ground-breaking ceremony to celebrate the start of construction for Bozeman’s eighth elementary school.

Superintendent Rob Watson thanked the voters who overwhelmingly approved $20 million in bond debt to buy the land and build a new school, along with local investors who bought the first round of bonds, “so we’re able to build a wonderful building for our students.”

Wearing a white hardhat and holding a ceremonial gold shovel, Watson said the new school has support from the City Commission, Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce, city planners and Montana State University faculty.

“We really are a community that encourages and inspires great education,” Watson said.

With that, 15 dignitaries tried to scratch up a bit of the hard clay with their gold shovels for the TV cameras as 20 spectators applauded.

The new 500-student school is being built on 10 acres on the north side of Durston Road, just west of Christ the King Lutheran Church and Heritage Christian School. It’s badly needed, officials said, to keep up with Bozeman’s growing number of elementary students.

“They keep coming,” said Marilyn King, deputy superintendent. “This morning we had three more families (register) in K-5 schools.”

The real earth-moving work started four days ago, said Steve Langlas, vice president of Langlas & Associates, the general contractor and construction manager.

Crews from Duneman Construction are busy excavating the clay soil and compacting everything to lay the groundwork for a good foundation, said Kevin Barre, the school district’s facilities supervisor. They’re taking advantage of the dry weather, trying to get it done before rains come and turn the soil into a big mud hole, Barre said.

The new school isn’t officially scheduled to open until the fall of 2014, but there’s a chance it might be ready sooner, Langlas and Barre said cautiously.

On the one hand, it’s being built on the same basic Prugh & Lenon Architects’ design as Hyalite School, which opened in 2009. That school took about 16 months to complete, and the same builders are in charge.

But the new, still unnamed school will be larger, with a separate gym and cafeteria and other improvements.

“We’ll try to build as fast as we can,” Barre said. “We’ll see where we are in January and February, see when we could complete it.” If it looks like it might be possible to finish faster, Barre said, “we’ll move in that direction.”

“We’ve had a great start,” Langlas said. “ We’re trying to gain as much time as we can because we know winter’s coming.…To get it done in 12 and a half months would be a very large challenge. We’ll do our best, but I can’t make any promises.”

“This is great,” School Board Trustee Wendy Tage said, looking over the small army of excavators and dump trucks moving earth. “I’m glad these guys hit the ground running.”

“I’m very excited,” Trustee Heide Arneson said. “It’s going to be crowded the next two years. But then we’ll have space for kids.”

After months of planning, talking to voters, working with land sellers and the city on annexation, Barre said, “It’s nice to turn paper into reality.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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