Jackson Hole isn’t getting any larger, but enrollment at Teton County schools is, and that’s straining the district.

District officials recently began advertising to buy 10 acres for a new elementary school that Chief Operating Officer Brad Barker said was needed “yesterday.”

The district has been shopping for land for several years, but the squeeze is getting tighter, especially in the lower grades, Barker said.

“We’re over capacity, and we’re really seeing it at Jackson and Colter elementary schools,” Barker said last week. “We want to build as soon as we possibly can to meet state requirements for teacher-student ratios. We’ve had to get waivers for being over the 16-to-1 mandated ratio in kindergarten to third grade.”

Given where the county’s population growth is occurring, the district has been looking to buy “somewhere south of town,” Barker said.

“That’s where we’ve got a cluster of students, down in that area,” he said.

Also “flat is better because it requires less excavation and dirt work,” and he added that good road access is important.

10 acres needed

The 10-acre size is based on state formulas that call for a minimum of 4 acres for an elementary school and another acre for every 100 students.

Ultimately, though, Barker said, aside from the size requirement “we’ll work with whatever we can find. There’s a limited supply of property in Teton County to begin with.”

The search so far has led to some talk with owners, but no deal has been made. Barker said continuing uncertainty about Teton County’s new comprehensive plan is influencing owners to take “a wait-and-see-approach to selling” because they think new zoning might be good for them.

But the school district has an advantage if it builds in an area slated for new development, said Rob Cheek, a real estate agent associated with Remax/Obsidian Real Estate. Though Cheek said “there might be some resistance by NIMBYs” to a school — something Barker acknowledged — developers often use nearby schools as a selling point.

“If you’re selling family homes and you can say, ‘We’ve got an elementary school in the neighborhood’ … well, it’s a great amenity for a residential development,” Cheek said. “Many would see it as a positive.”

State will pay bulk of cost

Fortunately for Jackson taxpayers, the state will pay the biggest part of the cost, with locals coughing up cash only for items the state considers to be frills.

The Teton County School District already has state money for planning, Barker said. He wouldn’t say how much — or how much the land or construction might cost — for fear of putting the district in a bad position to negotiate.

It won’t be cheap, though.

In the Rafter J and Melody Ranch subdivisions, the general area where the district would like to build, current residential land prices are healthy. In Rafter J this year’s Teton County assessments put the value of quarter-acre lots in the range of $219,000, third-acre lots at about $319,000 and half-acre lots at about $351,000. Melody Ranch assessments were comparable.

Building costs will also be impressive, as evidenced by construction of Davey Jackson Elementary School, completed in 2008.

Built on 11 acres the district already owned near the Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center, the school cost $22.69 million. That’s $277.32 a square foot for the 81,844-square-foot complex. Part of what drove up the price was that the district wanted something the state puts in what Barker called the “nicer than what’s allowed” category: a gym.

“The state funds up to what they believe is adequate for elementary middle and high schools,” he said. “A full-size gym is not considered necessary at elementary level, so is not one of the things included” in state funding.

Barker said playgrounds at Jackson’s elementary schools are also beyond what the state pays for.

Too small when it opened

Despite the investment at Jackson elementary, before the school even opened it wasn’t enough.

The school was designed for 550 students, but while work was underway the state slashed the 24-to-1 student-teacher ratio to 16-1, lowering the allowable number of students at Jackson elementary to 475 before the doors opened.

The school began this semester with 602 students after the district hauled in two modular buildings with four classrooms. Even with the outbuildings, the school has too many pupils.

“They’re packed in,” Barker said.

The district’s other big elementary school, Colter, is also overcrowded, Barker said. The district recently converted offices to classrooms there to accommodate its 565 students.

Besides handling kids who live within the district, Barker said, having surplus space for young students would have an unanticipated benefit: The district could take students from outside the district, which indirectly helps the Jackson economy.

Barker noted that many people who work in Jackson live outside the valley but face a quandary when their young children reach school age. Some, he said, decide that if their kids are in school in Star Valley or in Idaho that they can’t work in Jackson.

If there were enough space in Jackson classrooms, “a mother doesn’t have to decide to quit working in Jackson when her child is kindergarten age,” he said. “They can be at work in Jackson with the child close by.”

The school district wants “to move as quickly as possible” on the new school, Barker said.

“If we could purchase property today our planning would have us at substantial completion of a new elementary by summer 2018.”

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Contact Mark Huffman at 732-5907 or mark@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mark Huffman edits copy and occasionally writes some, too. He's been a journalist since newspapers had typewriters and darkrooms.

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