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By Ed Moreth 

Schools get boost from state grants


Ed Moreth

NEW BUILDING COMING – Plains School Superintendent Thom Chisholm shows where the new multi-function building will be constructed later this year, thanks to a $750,000 state grant.

by Ed Moreth

It wasn't the sweepstakes man coming to the door, but it was a big win for Plains School Superintendent Thom Chisholm, who received word last week that the school will be getting a $750,000 grant from the Montana Department of Commerce.

"Congratulations. On behalf of the State of Montana, it is my pleasure to notify you that the Plains School District 1 has been selected for a Delivering Local Assistance award in the amount of $750,000...," reads the letter from Governor Steve Bullock. "When I saw that, I said to myself that I had to keep breathing," said Chisholm, who called a special meeting that day to tell the schoolteachers and he informed the school board in a special meeting that night.

Chisholm wasn't optimistic when he first heard last July that the state was soliciting applications to give away large chunks of money. The deadline was only weeks away and grants had to be specifically written with a lot of detail, but when Kevin Meredith, the high school principal, said he'd write it, Chisholm gave him the green light.

As the grant started taking shaping, Chisholm became more enthusiastic, and when the 54-page document was finished, the superintendent personally drove to Helena to hand deliver it to the Department of Commerce three days before the deadline. "I wanted to put a face with the grant and I wanted them to know how serious we were about this," said Chisholm.

However, his enthusiasm diminished when he got word that the Sept. 30 deadline was extended to get more applications, something that irritated some of those that met the initial deadline. Chisholm called about the grant status three times and visited the Department of Commerce once to check on it. Chisholm's misgivings didn't ease when at one point, he received a call that there was a freeze on all grant money. Even when he saw an envelope from Helena last week, he was sure it was a rejection letter. It was not.

The grant money will be used for a multi-function facility, which will be built about 20 yards from the south side of the school. Though some of it is still in the conceptual stage, the 11,400-square foot building will house a new gymnasium, locker room, performing arts area, and a new art classroom. Chisholm has already staked out the area and is hoping that construction will begin this summer.

"To get a grant like this is remarkable, but to get two grants in the last six years is unbelievable," said Chisholm, the superintendent since 2010. In 2014, the school received a $1.14-million state grant to add a new wing on for the elementary school. The new proposed building won't be as large as the present gym, which has a bleacher capacity of 636, but it will be utilized mostly by the 250 students from kindergarten through sixth grade. In addition, the school's drama club, headed by Terri Henry, won't have to perform at the Sanders County Fairgrounds, which cost the school $1,200 a year. With the present space, students of the health and physical education classes have had an ongoing battle for the same areas. For the last 15 years, the school has been renting the Christian Alliance Church gymnasium for junior high school games, a saving, between busing the students and the gym rental, of about $4,100 a year.

Presently, Kristin Cole teaches the art classes in a second floor room above the shop class. A couple of years ago, the school had a scare when a fire started in a light fixture caught fire on the stairway leading to the art classroom. Chisholm said they were lucky that substitute teacher Orin Kendall smelled smoke and immediately put the fire out with an extinguisher. There were no injuries, but Chisholm said a lot of people were concerned. "There is only one egress from that classroom and it became a safety issue and it's also isolated," said Chisholm of the present art room, although there is a ladder outside a window.

Plains wasn't the only school to receive grant money. Noxon School was awarded $188,995 to replace an aged heating system in the junior high and high school wings. "This is really huge for the Noxon district. This is really going to benefit our district," said Noxon Superintendent Jonathan Martin, who added that the school has been trying to get this project done for two decades. The school board has already approved an additional $5,000 not covered by the grant. The 11 heating units will be installed in classrooms, the computer room, art room, main offices, and the library. The new heaters will benefit around 200 students from seventh grade to seniors and 11 of the school's 21 teachers. 

Martin said the present heaters are the original ones installed in the 1960s. He said the local repairman who has worked on the school heaters has told Martin that parts are getting difficult to find and eventually would be unavailable.

It took Martin and David Pafford, the school board chairman, countless hours over several weeks to get the estimated 30-page grant application in before the first deadline. Martin said part of the application had to demonstrate how the disappearance most of the lumber businesses impacted the local economy. 

"I was very excited when I saw the letter. I ripped it open pretty fast," said Martin, who's been the superintendent for about a year and was annoyed when the initial deadline was extended to get more applicants. He immediately went around the school to inform the teachers and called to give the news to the board. This was the second time the school has applied for a grant to replace the heating system, but it was rejected the first time.

Martin plans to have an engineer do a site study next week. He believes it will take a couple months to do the work, but hopes the project can be completed this summer. Martin said they plan to apply for another grant in the near future to update the school lighting system with new LED lights, which are more energy efficient.

Chisholm said they've been thinking about a new building for five or six years and started formulating plans within the last two and a half years. "A lot of people said we needed a new gym and we did an educational assessment and basically it revealed that we have an overbooked PE classroom, no facility for performing arts, and also we were concerned that our current art room is not accessible to all students," said Chisholm. He said the art classroom was added to the plans when the grant became available. He said the school might have to add some $500,000 to the project, which has been approved by the school board.

According to the letter from the governor, the state legislature allocated $21.5 million for the Delivering Local Assistance program. The state received 191 applications requesting around $83 million. Thompson Falls School applied for $395,00 to install bleachers and replace the boiler system with propane units, but its request was not approved.

The community of Paradise, under the jurisdiction of Sanders County, applied for the maximum dollar amount of $750,000 and will be receiving $561,005 to help pay for the $4,572,000 construction of centralized wastewater system, which included collection lines and a treatment and disposal system. The Town of Plains requested $750,000 to relocate the wastewater sewage system, which is estimated to cost $5,266,000, but Mayor Dan Rowan said they did not get approved. Thompson Falls applied for the max amount to pay for a $15,017,390 project to construct wastewater treatment plant, install lift station, install over 20,000 feet of lines in an un-sewered area, but it also did not get approved.

The Plains Schools new building will have five or six rooms with the art class as the largest, with the exception of the gym. It would include classrooms, a locker room, an office, and restrooms, although the superintendent said nothing yet is set in stone. Chisholm hopes the bidding process will begin soon and would like to get construction started this summer.


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