Middleton city and school leaders band together to tackle classroom overcrowding

The Middleton City Council leaped headfirst into the tussle between overcrowded classrooms and incessant subdivision growth spreading throughout the Treasure Valley.

The council voted 3-1 Wednesday in favor of Ordinance 693 School Capacity and Preliminary Plat Approval, amending subdivision development requirements. Now, lots for new homes won’t be approved if they are projected to overcrowd schools (bringing a school above 110% of capacity).

The unprecedented new law challenging residential development that harms education could ripple across the state, providing a lifeline for districts unable to pass a bond. The ordinance’s sponsor, councilman David Murray, ultimately wants a permanent statewide mechanism in place so districts have a way to fund new schools.

The new law is “not a weapon but a tool to protect a constitutional right in this state,” Murray said last Wednesday. “I think the Legislature would have a hard time resisting virtually everyone.”

The Kuna School District appears ready to ask its city council to take up a similar law. And the Vallivue School District worked closely with Middleton to craft the ordinance.

Because Idaho lacks state-level programs to assist with capital funding, local bonds pay for major improvements, like building a new school or renovating an old building. A two-thirds supermajority is required to pass a bond. 

In Middleton, voters have rejected five consecutive bond requests.

The Legislature provided some relief this year, in the form of $1 billion dispersed to school districts. But for most districts, their portion will not cover the cost of building new schools. Instead, the money will likely be used for ongoing maintenance costs.

Middleton expects to receive $17 million, available as a one-time payment or spread over 10 years. A new elementary school is estimated to cost $25 million.

An overcrowded classroom is not “conducive to learning,” Murray said. 

Increased noise makes it harder for kids to concentrate. Meanwhile, teachers find it difficult to focus. And as the number of students increases, teachers are forced to pay less attention to each student.

“People are looking for anything to slow the craziness that we have seen,” said Kim Carson, a Middleton resident who spoke in support of the ordinance.

Like many Treasure Valley communities, Middleton is growing, and more homes in small communities translates to more kids in classrooms. Since 1990, the population has increased by an average of 75% each decade, according to the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.

Middleton faces several overcrowding challenges:

  • Middleton Heights Elementary School was built for 396 students but serves 579 — 146% of capacity.
  • Mill Creek Elementary School was built for 616 students but serves 727 — 118% of capacity.
  • Purple Sage Elementary was built for 594 students but serves 462 — 77% of capacity. The school houses special education services that need more space so some classrooms are strategically capped to ensure smaller class sizes.

The ordinance is “something that could help us keep our students in a school that is at the capacity that it was originally designed for,” said Marc Gee, Middleton’s superintendent.

The local law defines a public school as an essential part of the city’s infrastructure, and therefore residential expansion will be stopped if education cannot be supported, the council reported.

However, detractors noted a number of potential problems and unintended consequences. 

  • Around 3,684 building permit eligible lots are already approved so residential development won’t slow for seven to 10 more years.
  • Canyon County, Star and Caldwell continue to grow and have properties within the Middleton district boundaries. Middleton schools may continue experiencing enrollment growth as residential development spreads outside the city limits. 
  • There’s concern that land approval authority would be controlled by the school district.
  • Home prices could rise because the supply of homes in Middleton may be constrained.
  • The new law may sway voters away from approving the district’s planned 2025 bond proposal, because they may believe the new law has solved the problem.

“This is something that we’re enacting now because we have a current situation. Once that situation is resolved, this can be changed. Obviously, other school districts are listening to what’s going on here. Maybe we’re just a sounding board,” said councilman Tim O’Meara.

While the Idaho Department of Education does not know the full impact of this ordinance, “we will be watching the decision very closely,” said Greg Wilson, the department’s chief of staff.

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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