The Columbia Falls School District 6 board voted to move forward with pair of projects near Ruder Elementary Monday, electing to give preliminary approval to put aside land there for a new Boys and Girls Club facility as well as soccer and sports fields.

In a 5-1 vote, the board passed a resolution declaring it’s intention to sell approximately 35,000 square feet of land to the Boys and Girls Club for a new facility that would sit just north of the Ruder Elementary gymnasium.

Superintendent Steve Bradshaw pointed out that the resolution is not a binding agreement, it is only a statement of the district’s intention to sell the land to the Boys and Girls Club for the project on a number of conditions, including making sure the building’s purpose will meet with the goal and objectives of the school district, the club demonstrating it was sufficient funds to complete the project without going into debt and that the property would be returned to the district if the project should fail for any reason, among others.

Freedom Bank President Don Bennett, who has spearheaded the project, said he was ready for the board to make a decision and was excited to move forward with his plans.

“There are tough choices that have to be made. Part of capitalism it taking risks. I don’t think we are asking the school district to take much of a risk at all,” Bennett said. “We first presented this idea more than a year ago. First we had to wait for the technology levy, to make sure we didn’t mess that up. Then we needed to wait for the long-range planning process. I’m asking you to make a decision and I’m not going to wait any longer. That is not a threat, we are just tired of waiting and this is going to make a big difference in our community.”

Board members agreed that the community is in need of the types of programs that could be provided at a new Boys and Girls Club facility.

“We have a really pressing need to provide something for junior high kids after school. The after-school activities we offer do not cover it. It’s not just a babysitting service. It’s a program-oriented service that I think is vital for our kids,” board member Larry Wilson said.

“This will allow the Boys and Girls Club to go in a different direction where they are going to be able to structure very meaningful programs in which our kids can participate and grow. I don’t think the facilities they have now necessarily allow for that,” Mike Nicosia added.

Board member Barb Riley cast the lone vote against the resolution, stating that she supports the project, but does not think the timing is right.

“I have stated from day one that I thought this particular motion and resolution are premature,” she said. “We are not done with our K-8 facility long range planning and I am not certain this is the best space for this particular project. I support the project and the concept behind it, but I believe we need to have our long-range planning group make its decision first. We are about 30 to 40 days too soon for this decision to be finalized.”

The resolution does allow for public input before any deal with the Boys and Girls Club is finalized. Any taxpayer may appeal the resolution to the district court before May 8 by filing a verified petition with the court clerk and serving it upon the district.

In other action, the board unanimously approved a plan to move forward with a project to build sports fields on the open land between Ruder Elementary and the Junior High School.

The board agreed, in principal, to set the land aside for the project, which was first brought before them by last month by Tom Coburn of the Flathead Rapids and Columbia Falls boys soccer coach O’Brien Byrd.

Citing a substantial increase in youth soccer participation over the past two year, Coburn and Byrd proposed that the funding for the project be added to the upcoming bond issue, but the board was not sure that was such a good idea.

“I think if we ask the public to fund all this project, the impact could be more negative than positive. If we can say that private funding is going to pay for a portion of it, I think we will have a better chance,” Nicosia said. “It is important to say that we will be involved with the funding, but we might not be able to commit to providing all of the funding.”

In their proposal, Coburn and Byrd estimated that at bare minimum, the project could cost $642,000, but with the addition of paved parking and concession and restroom facilities could cost around $1.2 million. They also estimated an annual cost of between $12,500 and $25,000 for field maintenance.

While all members of the board were in favor of the project, some feared that adding it to the bond could hurt its chances at the polls.

“Frankly, I like this concept. I really like it. But another million dollars on top of a bond issue of $30 million. That might be asking the public a lot,” Wilson said. “I would not stop this from going to the public for a vote, but I don’t know if I could vote for it, just based on my personal finances.”

Byrd did say that finding some private funding for the project, whether it be in money or in-kind work, was a possibility, but that it could be tough. He said that adding it to the bond issue would be the easiest way to get funding and now was the time to do it.

“This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. I really do think it is directly related to the bond. It’s not adults that are going to take advantage of this, it would be the kids,” Byrd said. “When the time comes to pass the bond, I will be the first one on the mountain drumming up support, whether these fields are a part of it or not.”

In the end, the board approved the idea of using the land for sports field space, subject to an administrative review of how the district can participate in the funding of the project.

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