Patience and donations

Committee informs, asks for help with old high school project

The piles of muddy snow are starting to melt away as the winter forges on. Caution tape reading, ‘crime scene do not enter,’ is tattered by months of Montana winds and the brick count would surely be lower now than it was when the building was erected. All these constants are changing, but progress toward beautifying the site of the old Sweet Grass County High School seems to be standing still.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Members of the community gathered Jan. 24 to listen to committee members from St. Marks’ Episcopal Church — coupled with other community members on the committee — to hear about the recent history of the old high school and what’s next.

The committee, led by Jami Moody and Paige Dringman, gave a synopsis of what happened when the church was trying to buy the old high school from private owner Cyrus Smith, both before and after the fire, and what’s happening now with the progress of renovating the space.

“[What happens to the space] remains up to the community in many ways,” Moody said. “St. Marks has always envisioned as somewhat of a community space. Several things come to mind: The civic center needs handicapped parking, some type of green space with whatever there; some type of green space with some kind of memorial to the old high school, in some form or fashion.”

The church was ready to buy the building for $50,000 before the fire. After renegotiation, the church got it for $20,000. The hope is to give the space back to the community when all is said and done. 

“We always knew we didn’t want to be the final owner,” Moody said at the meeting. “We always knew we wanted to be some type of pass-through; facilitate something for the community.”

Conversations between Smith and the church have been ongoing since late 2014, and finally came to their agreements last fall. Through grants at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other monetary means, the church was eventually able to buy the building. 

The old high school project committee is made up of members from both the community and the church. They are: Mark Josephson, Mimi Cremer, Corry Cremer-Seitz, Susan St. Germain, Paige Dringman, Suzanne Wilson and Jami Moody. Together, they were hoping to have a more “grand gesture” and “rolling out the red carpet” kind of event, that gave a more concise idea of what was going to happen to the half-burnt-down building and future plans. But, because of the fire and some health and safety hazards, those plans are postponed indefinitely. 

The dilemma

Prior to the fire, it was noted there were areas of both lead-based paint and asbestos in the old high school. That wasn’t much of a concern or a surprise, with knowledge of the history of the building. According to a Phase 2 analysis by the EPA, of 50 samples taken from the site before the fire, eight came back positive for asbestos and lead-based paint. 

The asbestos was found in the shop building, in two walls on the first floor and along some piping in the basement. Led based paint was fairly prominent throughout all three floors. 

Although there was lead-based paint and asbestos containing material (ACM) in designated areas, a large portion of the old high school was more than salvageable — including the much-desired bricks. 

However, after the fire, the Department of Environmental Quality worried asbestos could have spread and showered the entire building in ACM. 

“The DEQ said ‘We don’t like the Phase 2 [analysis]. We have problems with the Phase 2 [analysis],’” Dringman said. “Fire changes the nature of asbestos. So, that’s where we’ve been after taking this step back.’

The DEQ felt the EPA hadn’t tested enough samples prior to the fire, and because of the burn, there could be asbestos on everything. Because the DEQ has adopted a certified plan on how to remove ACM from buildings, it will have the final say moving forward with any plans at the old high school.

Before to the fire, Dringman said it would cost about $125,000 to appropriately remove the limited areas of ACM. Should the committee be required to deem the entire building as ACM, there’s no telling how much that would cost. 

Community Foundation steps in

It’s going to take patience and donations to get anything moving toward a project of greener spaces and less headaches surrounding the old high school, and that’s where the Sweet Grass Community Foundation has stepped in.

“Every meeting, we talk about how are we going to pay for all of this,” Seitz said, who is the executive director of the Community Foundation. “We set up a project fund for the purpose of the old high school. The Community Foundation can accept a tax-deductible donation and we will provide the tax receipts to all donors, but we will grant the funds to St. Marks after we receive the invoices for the purpose of the project.

“It’s important to understand St. Marks isn’t raising a bunch of money and spending it how they chose to. They have to send us invoices to the Community Foundation, they have to be for the community project, and then we will reimburse them via grant for those invoices.”

Donations can be made in a variety of ways, starting with the Community Foundation — either on its website or in person. 

The old high school project committee has also setup a Facebook page at There, you can click the “donate” button at the top of the page. 

“We really wanted to have a completed plan and a plan of action, a dollar amount and a big, splashy roll out,” Moody said. “And, unfortunately, like life, nothing is that simple. If there’s anything to take away, we’re really committed to seeing this through; we’re going to see this through. We’re going to need all of you and we’re going to need a lot more money. 

“But, we’re really enthusiastic about it.”

PHOTO CAPTION: The old high school sits quietly and patiently, waiting on the next steps of approval from government agencies. While those around town wait as well, a committee has formed to keep citizens up to date with the project. (STEPHEN KALB-KOENIGSFELD / Big Timber Pioneer)




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