WORDEN — Two years after a fire destroyed Huntley Project High School, the sprawling campus of School District 24, which includes Huntley Project’s elementary and junior high, an old house that has been converted into the district office and portable classrooms for the high school, is abuzz with activity.
Construction on the new high school is in full swing and school begins on Tuesday.
“We’re not thrilled about having to be in the temporary classrooms one more year,” said Superintendent Wes Coy. “But there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
The new school is scheduled to be finished next summer. The building will house the district’s junior high and high school and cost nearly $14 million. Already, walls have gone up and a roof structure is in place. Crews spent Thursday and Friday pouring cement to create a walkway for students who will be moving from one end of campus to the other amid the construction.
For the community — the work on the school is visible from most corners in Worden— and for the students, the construction is just one more reminder of the fire.
In the early morning on Sept. 18, 2008, Katie Jo Parshall and Charles James McCade, both 14 at the time, along with Gregory Three Fingers, who was 19, and Michael Victoria III, 16, twice broke into the high school. At some point they found flammable material and decided to start a fire.
Three Fingers and Victoria had the lighters and ignited the chemicals in two different parts of the building, leading to the fire that destroyed the school. Both were convicted of arson and burglary. Parshall and McCade were convicted of burglary.
For many of the students, the construction and the fire have simply become part of the background of typical high school life.
“We mostly forget about it because we’re used to it,” said Brianna Decock, a freshman.
Until something reminds them and they stop and think about it.
Decock is on the school’s volleyball team and she and fellow teammates Stormy Siemion, a sophomore, and Kelsey Oblender, a junior, all said they notice the fire’s effect at their games.
With facilities gone in Worden, school sporting events have to be held in Billings. As a result, attendance at games has dropped dramatically, they said.
Many students acknowledge it’s been a challenging two years. A year after the fire, a hazing incident on the high school’s football team in November led to felony assault charges and expulsion for two players.
But mostly, the kids in school are optimistic, the three volleyball players said.
“They finally started building and that’s exciting,” Siemion said.
“I should be graduating in the new building,” Oblender added.
The fire, the lost school and the cost to the community will always be a presence in Worden.
“It’s part of what the community is,” Coy said. “It’s never going away.”
But with that, there has been growth.
“There’s been healing seeing the new building go up,” he said.
The voters in the school district passed a $9 million, 18-year bond last year to pay for reconstruction of the high school. The district received about $5 million in insurance money. The length of the bond and the cost to the community are where much of the anger over the fire still resides, something that has been acknowledged by the district judge who sentenced the four teenagers.
Victoria, who was the first of the four teenagers involved to appear in court — just days after the fire — and the last to be sentenced, stood before District Judge Russell Fagg earlier this week and listened quietly as he was ordered to 17 years probation for his part in the fire.
Fagg told Victoria that he will have to pay at least $100 a month in restitution for the term of his suspended sentence, or 10 percent of his income, whichever is greater. Fagg noted that the length of his sentence mirrors the amount of time it will take for taxpayers to pay off the $9 million bond.
“It’s going to be an open wound for a long time,” said Michael Rieter, owner of Project Merc, the town’s grocery store, two blocks from the school. “It’s going to be an open wound as long as we’re paying that bond.”
In that respect, he said, the town got the same sentence as Victoria. For the next 17 years, everyone’s going to be paying for that fire, he said.
Contact Rob Rogers at email@example.com or at 406-657-1231.