2019-08-16 Anderson School

Scott McDowell remembers the day he was called to Anderson School’s fifth-grade classroom and found all the students out in the hallway except one boy, who pointed excitedly at the wall heater.

“’Look, Mr. McDowell, it exploded!’” the student said.

“It looked like Old Faithful,” McDowell recalled, with steam coming out and water running on the floor, down onto the kindergarten room below.

That’s just one example of the problems plaguing the older half of Anderson School, said McDowell, principal and superintendent.

Built in stages over the past 30 to 40 years, Anderson School’s older west or “brown” wing needs so many repairs the School Board has voted to ask voters to pass a $6.9 million bond issue to replace it with a new classroom wing.

Ballots will be mailed out Sept. 12 and must be returned by Oct. 1.

“This is a big ask,” McDowell said, but added that the money is needed for crucial safety improvements, classroom and handicapped access improvements and replacing aging infrastructure.

This is the last year for paying off the bonds that built the school’s newer east wing in 2000. With that debt coming off the tax rolls, trustees are hoping voters will agree it’s time to stop using “Band-Aid” fixes on the old wing and replace it with a new classroom wing.

Anderson school, on Cottonwood Road about five miles south of Huffine Lane, has about 200 students in kindergarten to eighth grade.

On a tour of the old wing, McDowell showed windows that have cracked frames, a crowded storage room that doubles as a teaching space, and an old warehouse-style lift that’s supposed to provide handicapped access between floors but isn’t reliable. Once on Grandparents Day, a trustee’s wheelchair-bound mother got stuck in the lift halfway up.

Part of the old wing has a wooden foundation that must be replaced, said Karen Hedglin, a McKinstry construction engineering project manager.

The school’s brochure on the bond issue explains that the old wing doesn’t have enough bathrooms, or sprinklers for fire safety, or adequate ventilation to bring in fresh air or large enough classrooms.

In the last five years the school has had to spend $200,000 on maintenance, repairs and handicapped access upgrades, including $80,000 for a new boiler after the school went for days without heat each winter, McDowell said. Heaters are so old that plumbers often have to look for replacement parts on eBay.

The new wing would be constructed south of the 20-year-old east wing.

One big advantage of building a new wing instead of repairing the old wing again, McDowell said, is that it would solve the problem of where to teach 150 kindergarten to sixth-grade kids during construction. Once the new wing was built, the old brown wing could be demolished.

It’s easier to make the case that the old wing is in bad shape, but harder to pass bond issues. Most of Anderson School’s smaller annual tax levies pass by just a handful of votes.

If passed, the $6.9 million bond issue would cost homeowners $9.53 a month or $114.36 a year for every $100,000 of state-assessed market value. For a house assessed at $250,000, that would be $23.82 a month or $285.90 a year.

The rural school district is on the west edge of fast-growing Bozeman, but outside the city’s water and sewer service. So Bozeman’s fast-growing subdivisions haven’t reached Anderson yet. And Anderson’s district doesn’t have a single business to ease the tax burden on homeowners and farms, McDowell said.

The school needs the new wing, he said, not to cope with future growth but to solve the problems it has now.

No matter what happens with the bond issue, the school has to come up with $350,000 to fix a septic system that’s old and inadequate, Hedglin said. The school has applied to the state for infrastructure money but doesn’t know if that will be granted.

To get the word out about the election, McDowell said, school supporters plan to go door to door to all 460 households to explain the bond issue and answer voters’ questions. He also is offering to give public tours on Tuesdays at noon and 4 p.m. through Sept. 10.

Anderson School is probably best known for the ambitious musicals it puts on each year in the Emerson Center and its annual Haunted House, held in the original little red schoolhouse to raise money for the eighth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C.

“We have a lot to be extremely proud of,” McDowell said, including excellent teachers. “I don’t think we have a facility that matches that.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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