As the school year ends and the district looks to the future, the biggest pressure might not come from decisions about education. Instead, housing issues loom over one of Teton County’s largest employers.
Chairman Keith Gingery tasked the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees on Wednesday night with considering the district’s long-term facilities needs. He presented a list of improvements the district has considered, including an athletic fieldhouse, a sixth-grade pod at Jackson Hole Middle School, a bigger bus barn and a career technology center.
Nearly every trustee cited housing as the No. 1 concern.
“When I look at this list, what rises to the top for me is employee housing, simply because without employees we have no district,” Trustee Alan Brumsted said.
During Wednesday’s discussion, the district didn’t cite specific numbers that quantify the pressure housing insecurity puts on its employees. With rising rents and purchase prices, the concern is that educators will be priced out of Jackson, hampering the district’s ability to recruit and retain staff.
Over the course of the 2020-21 school year, a worker shortage reared up in paraprofessional ranks. When pandemic precautions were put in place at the start of the school year, the district tried to hire more paraprofessionals because teachers were spending more time with kids and needed extra help.
However, at one point during the fall, just one application had been submitted.
Trustees worry housing pressure has reached the point where action is needed.
“I do think that it is critical,” Trustee Betsy Carlin said Wednesday.
The district is in a slightly different situation than other employers because it owns land on which housing could be developed. Trustees raised several ideas for where housing could be built.
One is along Jean Street near Jackson Elementary School, which would allow some teachers to live close to work. The same goes for land near Munger Mountain Elementary School the district could develop.
However, it still faces the daunting task of building housing, which has become ever more expensive.
In the past year, lumber costs have risen 250%, according to USA Today, pushing already expensive construction prices even higher. Before the district goes down the road of building anything, it will have to decide what its needs are.
Some teachers may want to purchase a home, while others may be fine renting. As of right now, the balance between those two is unclear.
“We will certainly need to probably do both,” Trustee Janine Bay Teske said. “Well, what does that look like in terms of the mixture?”
Funding any new development remains an open question. State funding for facilities has dried up in recent years as the extractive industries have shrunk, and raising money through a bond would increase already high property taxes.
Gingery’s preferred alternative for facilities ideas is to put them to voters in a slate of specific purpose excise tax proposals.
“What I would like about SPET is that it’s not the board making the decision,” he said, “it’s the actual voters making the decision as to what’s important.”
Getting anything on the SPET ballot next year would require the district to develop a plan by the end of this year, Gingery said.
The school board asked Superintendent Gillian Chapman and her staff to come back in July with more information on housing needs and potential solutions so that it could keep that possibility open.