American Falls grapples with overcrowding

AMERICAN FALLS — The lure of new jobs in American Falls is putting a strain on schools, hospitals and taxpayers.

The East Idaho town of 4,314 has experienced a continued surge in population since 2013, gaining 5 percent last year alone. As a result, the local school district and hospital are asking taxpayers for more than $27 million for new and updated facilities.

Taxpayers have rejected the $12.5 million school bond with a $15.25 million hospital bond looming.

As a result of the uptick in the town’s population, the American Falls School District is growing from the bottom up — and it’s posing a challenge for administrators.

Between 500 and 520 kindergarten through third-grade students attended the district’s Hillcrest Elementary School in 2015-16, eclipsing American Falls High School’s enrollment by more than 120 students.

“We’re growing, which presents a challenge in accommodating some of our learners,”  said Superintendent Ron Bollinger.

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American Falls superintendent Ron Bollinger

In 2013, 1,419 students enrolled in American Falls. In 2015-16, that number reached 1,472 — a 3.7 percent increase.

Most of the growth is concentrated in elementary grades, Bollinger said, as younger families find work in the agricultural community.

“We used to get a lot of migrant workers during harvest, but larger corporate farms have created an environment in which those who come to work end up staying here,” he said.

To illustrate the problem, Bollinger pointed to one of Hillcrest’s hallways. Teachers converted the corridor into a computer lab last year in an effort to free up class space for third-graders. But the tables and chairs lining the hall violated the city’s fire code. The school was forced to clear the space by the end of the school year.

In May, administrators sought a $12.5 million bond issue for an intermediate school for third- through fifth-graders, to relieve overcrowding at Hillcrest. Sixty-three percent of American Falls patrons favored the bond — falling short of the required two-thirds supermajority.

The current intermediate building accommodates fourth and fifth graders, is more than 50 years old and needs to be replaced, Bollinger said. Last year, a citizen’s committee overwhelmingly recommended replacing the building.

A short-term solution came in the wake of the failed bond issue: a doublewide modular trailer, which carries a $1,240 monthly price tag and will free up space by housing two third-grade classes this fall.

Still, Bollinger pressed the need for something more.

“Roughly 60 percent of our students speak Spanish as a first language,” Bollinger said, “so we have to keep our classes small in order to teach those students effectively.”

Classes at Hillcrest are limited to 22 students, in an effort to help native Spanish speakers “compete with other students who already know English,” said Bollinger.

The downside: Smaller classes compound the demand for more space.

“Really, a new school is the best solution at this point,” he said.

Bollinger couldn’t pinpoint why 37 percent of voters opposed the bond in May but did bring up the hospital’s bond issue, which could come before voters by the end of the year.

The Power County Hospital District is trying to get a $15.25 million bond on November ballots. The money would go toward new and existing facilities for the hospital.

The Hospital’s CEO, Dallas Clinger, also serves on the American Falls School Board.

“Obviously, those who opposed the school bond are out there, but none of them are really coming forth and saying who they are or why,” said Clinger. “There’s really no organized group opposed to the bond that we know of.”

Clinger said he supported the school bond.

The $12.5 million bond for an intermediate school should not trigger a property tax increase, since American Falls’ new high school will be paid off in August 2018. The district’s current levy runs taxpayers $538 per $100,000 of taxable property; the high school bond issue accounts for $158 per $100,000 of taxable property.

However, were both bonds to pass, taxpayers would see an increase, Bollinger acknowledged.

The hospital bond would account for $120 per $100,000 of taxable property.

Bollinger lamented the supermajority required to pass a bond issue in Idaho.

“It’s tough, but we’ll try again,” he said. “It took us four times to get a new high school here, but I believe we can get the support we need.”

The bond issue for a new intermediate school will likely appear on ballots in either March or May, Bollinger said.