Eager to chip away at overcrowding at the middle school, Teton County school board trustees approved a plan to alleviate congestion despite the problem not falling high on the state’s priority list.
“We need to get the capacity so that our kids can be safe and get the best education possible,” Teton County School District No. 1 Trustee Annie Band said Wednesday night.
There are 710 students enrolled at Jackson Hole Middle School, roughly 250 more than when the school opened in the 1990s. Projections show enrollment is expected to peak soon, with 731 students in 2020.
After months of meetings, community feedback and myriad options on the table following a capacity study, the board unanimously decided on a three-pronged strategy.
Step one: Get in the queue for roughly $12.2 million in state funding to construct a sixth-grade “pod.” As more funding becomes available, the board will appeal for money to build seventh- and eighth-grade pods, slowly creating a new school entirely.
One advantage of building a new school in increments is that classes can continue during construction.
“I’ve always been a big proponent of that ever since the process started,” Principal Matt Hoelscher said. “I really truly like all grades being here.”
The method, in his mind, is preferred over alternatives like moving sixth-graders back to elementary school or splitting up middle schoolers across the county.
Maintaining the existing gym space and building a ring around it is “really, kind of genius,” Trustee Kate Mead said, since the state doesn’t fund athletic spaces.
Assistant superintendent of operations Jeff Daugherty and consultant Plan One/Architects are presenting the results of the study and the district’s preferred course of action to the School Facilities Commission on Wednesday and Thursday in Casper.
In the meantime, a handful of small fixes — eliminating pinch points in the hallways, creating a security vestibule, remodeling and expanding the kitchen area, transforming an art area into a new math room — are on the docket.
The final piece of the approved capacity study remedy is what’s being called a long-term master plan for local secondary education improvements.
Trustees rallied back and forth during discussions of building a field house at the high school, something that may have enough community support to be funded with specific purpose excise taxes down the line. The structure would provide a space for health and physical education classes, and relocate the weight room and wrestling room, freeing up space for classrooms.
Another aspect of the long-term plan is additional classroom space that could be used for career and technical education programming, as well as nontraditional programs with unique spatial needs like the Fabrication Lab.
Getting money from the state to relieve cramped classrooms is like putting a frog in water and slowly turning it up to a boil. By the time a school is crowded enough to qualify for funds, it’s often too late to offer timely relief.
There are signs the water is already starting to bubble at the middle school. The number of sixth-graders in the lunchroom, 244, violates the occupancy code of 221.
But data presented Wednesday night projected a decrease in the middle school population over time, suggesting by the time substantive construction is completed larger classes will have already matriculated to the high school.
“This bubble will pass, and more reasonable class sizes will again return to JHMS in the near future,” the study report read.
That’s in part because Teton County birth numbers are declining, from a peak of over 500 babies born at St. John’s Medical Center in the years leading up to fiscal year 2010 to 420 in 2018. But despite not being accounted for in traditional enrollment projection methods, housing projects and further development could increase the district’s student population, trustees say.