Will the new elementary school be a victim of state budget cuts? Teton County No. 1 district officials and trustees have been holding their breath and crossing their fingers.
And they can breathe a sigh of relief — for now.
The funding for Munger Mountain Elementary School cleared an important hurdle Thursday: review by the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee.
Superintendent Gillian Chapman was happy to check the step off the district’s list as the project advances.
“We are pleased with the Joint Appropriation Committee’s recommendation to fund the construction of Munger Mountain Elementary School, especially in light of state budget concerns,” Chapman said in an email. “We are looking forward to providing all students with school facilities that are on par with the expectations of the rest of the state and our community.”
The $29 million school, the second-largest school facilities project in the state, will now head to the full Legislature for consideration during the 2017 session, starting in January. The only project more expensive is a roughly $42 million junior high school in Laramie County School District No. 1.
Other smaller projects on the school facilities list includes lease payments for modulars in Laramie County and an emergency repair of a school in Big Horn County.
Most of the funding for Munger Mountain, and other school facilities projects around the state, will come from an $80 million transfer from the state’s rainy-day fund. Chapman has said she thinks it is time for the state to dip into the fund to keep schools afloat during a budget crunch.
Crowding played a big role in the recommendation to fund construction at Munger Mountain and at the new Carey Junior High School in Laramie.
“Those are two counties that continue to grow and continue to have condition and capacity issues,” said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, chairman of the Select Committee on School Facilities.
Overcrowded classrooms are one of Teton County School District’s greatest problems. An estimated 23.5 percent of students in kindergarten through fifth grade are now learning in modular buildings.
In an effort to get students out of modulars, the district is reconfiguring two of the town’s elementary schools in addition to building Munger Mountain south of town to relieve stress on the existing schools. But if Munger Mountain doesn’t receive state construction funding, the district could still remain overcrowded.
“It’s all predicated on Munger Mountain opening,” said Tracy Poduska, assistant principal of Colter Elementary School, who is in charge of reconfiguration.
Chapman hasn’t hesitated to state her dislike of educating students in modulars, no matter how nice or well maintained they are.
“I’m going to call them trailers,” she told trustees at the December board meeting. “Because that is what they are.”
The state of Wyoming currently has a class size recommendation of 16 students for every teacher in kindergarten through third grade. But in Jackson class sizes vary between 18 and 20. Each year the district has to request a waiver as an acknowledgement that it can’t meet the state guidelines due to a lack of space.
The district began using modulars at the same time Davey Jackson Elementary School opened, already over capacity, and has been educating kids in them for five years.
Chapman said that needs to change, and the district has the tools to strategically mitigate the problem.
“By carefully examining the results of the Most Cost Effective Remedy Study conducted last year, and evaluating current enrollment data, we are building a school that meets current and future needs, without overbuilding,” Chapman said. “If the full Legislature approves this funding, we will realize benefits for students who are currently being educated in temporary modular facilities or overcrowded classrooms, while also gaining efficiencies in other areas such as transportation, food service and energy efficiency.”
Birth rates in Teton County are slowing and kindergarten through fifth grade enrollment peaked in 2015 — good news for the district, which previously thought it might need to look into building a second new elementary school during tough budget times. Now it looks like that won’t be necessary as the enrollment growth bubble moves into Jackson Hole Middle School and Jackson Hole High School.
Depending on construction funding from the coming legislative session, the district hopes to break ground at Munger Mountain on March 9. The goal is to have substantial completion by July 2018 and to be open for students in fall 2018.
As of November the district had spent a little over $3 million on appraisals, analysis, traffic studies, land, Dubbe Moulder Architects’ design services and GE Johnson preconstruction services.
Additional good news for schools across the state, and not just Munger Mountain, came Monday morning: Three bills that would have cut millions of dollars in education funding weren’t brought before the Joint Education Interim Committee.
Chairman Hank Coe and the committee’s co-chairman, Rep. David Northrup, said the bills — which proposed increasing class sizes and going back to the evidence-based model for education funding — didn’t have support among the panel’s members.
Instead of considering those bills the committee voted to create a subcommittee to write a conceptual amendment called the education deficit reduction bill. The bill will look into how to find a long-term fix for funding education in Wyoming.