Bonneville grapples with overcrowding, again

AMMON — With a $63.5 million high school in mid-construction, officials in the Bonneville School District are again turning to patrons for input on how to curb overcrowding — this time in elementary and middle schools.

“If we don’t do something, we’ll be the size of a 5A high school with students in just two grades,” said Rocky Mountain Middle School principal Jason Lords.

About 75 parents, patrons and teachers turned out for a two-hour meeting at Sandcreek Middle School on Tuesday to provide feedback and ask questions about a variety of multimillion-dollar options aimed at curbing the problem — and to see if the district will turn to local taxpayers to help fund the fix.

At this point, district officials are eyeing two primary options:

  • Build a 1,500-student middle school at anywhere from $46 million to $52 million.
  • Build one or more 650- to 1,000-student elementary schools at anywhere from $16 million to $22 million apiece.

Local actuary and Bonneville School District volunteer Mark Bird walked attendees through the pros and cons of each option on Tuesday night, but pegged a new middle school as the best way to grapple with Ammon’s dizzying growth — though it could mean placing a chunk of the future financial burden on local taxpayers.

The district’s current bonding capacity, without increasing property taxes, is about $34.5 million. With estimates for a new middle school coming back no lower than $45.7 million, patrons would be left to pick up the rest of the tab — about $11 million.

Assuming a “conservative” 4 percent rate of growth in the district, no increase to municipal-bond interest rates and the approval of an $11.6 million supplemental levy on March 16, the $11 million tab would amount to roughly $10 per year per $100,000 of taxable property for Bonneville patrons, or a little less than a buck a month.

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School board chairman Jeff Bird, a local home builder, believes the growth rate will be closer to last year’s nearly 6 percent, which could generate enough revenue for the district to avoid incurring a tax increase for the middle school project altogether.

“We just had a tax increase with the new high school,” Jeff Bird said. “We’re not taking another one completely off the table, but we want to do this without one if we can.”

Jeff Bird also said the district will have a clearer picture of Ammon’s growth rate this May, and that trustees haven’t ruled out waiting another year for growth needed to absorb the project’s costs without a bond.

But time is of the essence. Trustees also hope to curb the overcrowding as soon as possible, which means a measure to fund the project could find its way to ballots as early as this August.

Though the less-expensive elementary option could avoid a future bond issue altogether, Mark Bird says it would only alleviate overcrowding in the district’s 14 brick-and-mortar elementary schools. Whereas a new middle school would also free up space for seventh and eighth graders. That’s because a new 1,500-capacity middle school would allow sixth graders, who are currently dispersed throughout Bonneville’s elementary schools, to be moved into a trio of middle schools, simultaneously freeing up space at the elementary schools.

Though the largest portion of Tuesday’s presentation hinged on the district’s bonding capacity and potential costs, patrons set their sights on other concerns in the feedback portion of the meeting, including the impact on learning after a district-wide shift of sixth graders to middle schools.

Sixth-grade teacher Kati Pyper tried to allay those concerns by pointing to current sixth grade Common Core Standards, which align more closely to seventh- and eighth-grade standards than to K-5 standards.

Other concerns revolved around handling overcrowding in the meantime, especially at Discovery and Woodland Hills elementary schools, which are above capacity by about 100 kids.

District officials said they are considering a variety of alternatives to accommodate growth the rest of this year and into next, including the addition of more modular units, potential boundary changes for schools experiencing severe overcrowding and bussing students from one school to another in the morning.

Trustees will hold another meeting to address the issue and gather more feedback on March 16 at 7 p.m. at Rocky Mountain Middle School in Idaho Falls.