After quietly raising nearly $10 million over two-plus years, the Billings Catholic Schools announced plans for a new school at Colton Boulevard and Woody Drive on Tuesday. With Bishop Michael Warfel by her side, Rita Turley made the announcement after an annual all-school Thanksgiving Mass that drew a crowd of more than 1,000 anxious students, parents and community members into Central High’s gymnasium. Turley, who’s leading fundraising efforts, said the new $15 to $17 million school will be for first- through eighth-graders and should open in 2017. But before breaking ground, the school is aiming to raise 75 to 80 percent of construction costs. The school is confident they will reach that goal. Central High Principal Shel Hanser helped illustrate this after the announcement Tuesday morning. “We’re going to make a little chaos, because this is a big deal,” Hanser said, taking the podium in front of a group of high schoolers wearing white “Believe C” shirts. Hanser instructed the students in the audience to go into the hallway and grab a yellow plastic hard hat from a lineup that stretched down the hallway. After donning the hats, students were led in a chant by another group of students. The chant expanded to the bleachers, then to the parents. Before long, the words shook the gym: “I believe we’ll build this school. I believe we’ll build this school.” Afterward, Hanser expressed his own excitement. “For years it was a talking point, but now it’s a reality,” he said. Now 43, Hanser said he remembers people talking about building a new school back when he was in second grade. Jan Haider, president of the Billings Catholic Schools Foundation, said the school began brainstorming in 2010. In 2011, the school hired a consultant who completed a feasibility study to determine fundraising potential. According to Turley, after interviews with about 100 people in the community, the study concluded that it would be possible to raise between $22 and $25 million. The capital campaign kicked off not long after. Turley said raising the money has been “like a full-time job.” She said the community of Billings, where most of the donations have come from, has been “very generous,” but she noted that “there’s a lot of work to be done — a lot of money to be raised.” Haider said the schools attempted to raise funds for a new building years ago but failed. Hanser attributed that failure to a lack of need, which Haider and Hanser agreed isn’t the case anymore.
Haider said the schools — consisting of Central High, St. Francis Upper School, St. Francis Intermediate and St. Francis Primary School — have outgrown their facilities. Billings Catholic Schools President Harold Olson said for years they have tried to increase enrollment from the bottom up, adding a couple of new kindergarten classes over the last couple years. But he said they can’t add any more classes with current space limitations. Haider said Upper is at capacity. And with the exception of the high school, she said, the other schools are filling up also, creating inconveniences for their students. For example, Upper, which caters to sixth- through eighth-graders and had 213 students last year, doesn’t have a gym. Because of that, Haider said, students have to travel to Central High for extracurriculars. “The school was great in 1917 when you could tie your horse up out front,” Haider said. But now, she said, the situation is far from ideal. With the new school serving grades one through eight, administrators are planning to close and sell Primary and Upper and turn Intermediate into an early childhood education center, Haider said. But before they can sell Upper, Haider said, they first have to track down the descendants who inherited a portion of the school back when it was donated almost a century ago. She said they have identified about 700 people who could be partial owners. The vision leaves just three Catholic schools: a high school, the new school and the early education center. Consolidation, Olson said, will also increase efficiency. Among other things, he said upkeep will be easier, and they no longer will have to bus kids to Central High. Hanser said every afternoon around 200 Upper kids come to the high school. Although the school hasn’t been designed or named yet, school officials have big hopes for the new west side building. Turley said the school will be state of the art. She said it will be safe, without the multiple “points of access” that are common in the older buildings. She said it will also feature lots of natural light and have some sort of courtyard to accommodate outdoor learning. She said they’re shooting to make the building energy efficient. The first step toward design will begin at a meeting next month. Afterward, Haider said an architect would be hired. But she said it could take a year before anything definitive is drawn. Meanwhile, Turley said she’s confident they will reach fundraising goals in time to break ground in 2016. Chairman of the Billings Catholic Schools Board and newly-elected District Court judge Rod Souza said these are exciting times for the Catholic schools.
“There’s been a vision for this school for a long time,” he said. “It really is a great day for Catholic Schools.”
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