Town torn over prospect of boundary change

TETON — Patrons in Teton are torn over a plan to relinquish land and property worth millions of dollars to a neighboring school district.

In December, the State Board of Education gave the nod to dozens of petitioners hoping to move hundreds of acres from the Fremont County Joint School District to the Sugar-Salem School District. Voters in the affected area, which is south of Highway 33 and divides the town of Teton in half, will have the final say in the May election.

Annexing the land would boost Sugar-Salem’s meager local tax base, while slightly diminishing Fremont County’s more substantial base.

Supporters cite several reasons for the push:

  • Many Fremont County students living in the affected area already enroll in Sugar-Salem schools.
  • Some Sugar-Salem schools are closer to Teton than those in Fremont County.
  • Serving these added students grants Sugar-Salem the right to collect local property tax revenue now going to Fremont County.

Those opposed argue supporters have conflated the number of Fremont County students attending Sugar-Salem through current open enrollment policies. Opponents also say Sugar-Salem’s much higher levy rate will trigger tax hikes in the affected area, and that carving up new boundaries unnecessarily divides the rural East Idaho farm town of some 700 people.

“We don’t want no Mason-Dixon line running through here,” said Teton resident Joe Law.

Annexing the land would spur tax hike for affected Fremont County residents

The petition brought before the State Board in December touts a “minimum effect” to Fremont County’s tax base. Both Sugar-Salem superintendent Alan Dunn and school board chair Kristin Galbraith echoed this refrain in a separate letter presented to the State Board.

“The change in boundaries would be of marginal effect to the Fremont School District,” Dunn and Galbraith wrote.

This “marginal effect” claim stems from Fremont County’s much bigger tax base, boosted by expensive summer homes and high property values in tourist-rich Island Park, near the Montana Border.

Fremont County School District’s total market value reached nearly $1.6 billion in 2016-17. This big tax base minimizes the blow the district would feel by losing a swath of land that Fremont County superintendent Byron Stutzman estimates is worth between $7 million and $17 million.

Fremont County’s substantially larger tax base also helps keep property taxes low. Sugar-Salem’s long bout to attract and retain local businesses has the opposite effect for its taxpayers.

Sugar-Salem’s 2016-17 market value came in at just under $267 million, less than one-sixth of Fremont County’s. As a result, Sugar-Salem patrons pay a higher rate of local taxes to the school district, despite a smaller local levy on the books.

Here’s a look at what property owners currently pay annually in both districts, per $100,000 of taxable value:

  • Fremont County: $238.
  • Sugar-Salem: $370.

Fremont County patrons in the affected area would inherit Sugar-Salem’s levy rate if voters approve the measure in May.

Some Fremont County students already attend Sugar-Salem

Dunn didn’t immediately respond to a request from Idaho Education News for the number of Fremont County students attending Sugar-Salem schools.

Stutzman said at least 21 elementary-age Fremont County students attend Sugar-Salem and estimated a total of between 40 and 50 k-12 students crossing boundary lines in the affected area.

Stutzman’s estimate aligns with petitioner and Fremont County parent Tiffany Stanger’s numbers, which she provided to the State Department of Education in July. Stanger counted 72 children in the area, with roughly 42 attending Sugar-Salem schools.

Many of these families are drawn to the closer proximity of schools across district lines, said Stanger, who lives closer to Sugar City than to Teton.

“Most of the children in the proposed area already attend (Sugar-Salem),” Stanger and fellow petitioner Christy Fyfe said in a letter to the State Board. “We strongly perceive ourselves as being part of the (Sugar-Salem School District) community.”

Since many of these students already attend Sugar-Salem, Stanger said the district should get local tax revenues from patrons in the affected area.

“Sugar-Salem is tiny and poor,” Stanger said.

Patrons and leaders are mixed over the measure

Fremont County parent and patron Ryan Ward, who lives in Teton, questioned the numbers provided in the proposal to the State Board. Ward counted 83 school-age kids in the affected area, and said just 34 attend Sugar-Salem schools.

“Most kids actually still attend Fremont County,” Ward said.

In a letter of his own presented to the State Board, Stutzman acknowledged that families in the affected area do live closer to Sugar-Salem High School. The petition ignores, however, Teton Elementary School’s location in the heart of town. A boundary change would create the same proximity dilemma the petition aims to fix for high schoolers by forcing elementary students wanting to attend this “geographically close” school into a new district, Stutzman said.

Stanger and Fyfe reiterated that these elementary students could still attend Teton Elementary through open enrollment policies between the two districts.

Stutzman also called claims of a “minimal effect” to Fremont County’s tax base “factually inaccurate,” referencing the wide gap between the districts’ levy rates and saying owners in the affected area would see a “doubling of tax obligation” if the change occurs.

Fyfe downplayed the sting of a tax hike if the measure passes. She said that land annexed into Sugar-Salem would balance the playing field by taking from a more affluent district and giving to a poorer one.

“We think there might not even be a tax increase,” Fyfe said.

An Idaho Education News analysis, however, shows that Sugar-Salem’s tax base would have to grow by over $165 million to close the levy gap between the districts. The area under consideration represents a fraction of this amount.

Word of a potential tax hike in the affected area weighs heavy for some.

“I’m on a fixed income,” said  Nola Jensen. “I can’t afford to pay more taxes.”

Stutzman said: “Voters will have the final say in the election.”

Ed News data analyst Randy Schrader provided data and information in this report. 

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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