AP NEWS

Classical Academy advances modular school plan

May 8, 2019

The Jackson Hole Classical Academy is taking steps to build a temporary modular campus in South Park, with plans to open to students in the fall.

“We’re really grateful the school can exist,” Headmaster Polly Friess said. “Local families spoke out and said they need this option, and we care deeply about this valley and want to be able to provide a classical and Christian education and be in this valley. We’ve retained all our families and teachers, and I think there’s a great need for this.”

The Academy’s lease on its current facility on High School Road runs out in June. A new campus must be ready to go when school starts Sept. 3, Friess said.

“We’ve outgrown this building,” she said, “so it’s exciting to be able to move into the new facility and grow.”

The Academy has been searching for a permanent home for years. After Teton County commissioners rejected the school’s request to amend rural rules limiting building sizes to allow a gym and auditorium, the Academy successfully pushed Wyoming state legislators to approve a law that exempts private schools from county zoning authority as long as they are “substantially similar” to the guidelines that govern public school facilities.

“We ordered the modulars right after Senate File 49 passed,” Friess said.

The Academy is purchasing 80 acres from the Lucas family, Friess said, and 2500 South Park Loop Road will soon be home to eight modular units for classrooms, to be delivered in June. An 11,700-square-foot field gym, a parking lot and access roads are also planned to go in this summer in a way that can accommodate a future, more permanent facility.

“We’ve added 30 students every year for the past three years,” Friess said. “We’re very crowded in this building. We’re very excited to have more space.”

What that permanent campus might look like isn’t a priority right now, according to Friess.

“Our goal would be to reach capacity in these, then build the new campus,” Friess said. “That’s the financially wise thing to do as well as what’s good for our community. During this time we can continue to focus on excellence in academics.

“We really just have four months to get this whole campus done, so my entire energy is being put into that,” she said.

Because it’s the first time a private school is being built outside the purview of the county’s planning department, elected officials and neighbors have questioned what permits will be sought with local authorities and how the Academy’s “substantial similarity” to public schools will be enforced.

But John Knepper, an attorney representing the Academy, said the law is clear. He said “the way to understand the law is schools are for education.” He said it offers flexibility, and is less of a “checklist” than a requirement for consistency with the state of Wyoming’s vision for educational facilities.

“The legislature’s command was for private schools we expect the same focus on a high-quality education,” Knepper said. “They have to be committed to a high-quality facility that meets the educational needs of students and the design guidelines.”

Friess said the project just needs its architect to “stamp” it as “substantially similar” to Wyoming School Facilities Commission guidelines. That architect is a national firm called Bergmann, which Friess said has extensive experience in designing schools and designed the Academy’s current home.

So far the Academy has filed four commercial building permit applications with Teton County, for four buildings from 4,205 to 4,426 square feet. According to schematics filed with the Teton County Building Department, these will be four buildings of two combined modulars for classrooms and offices.

Building permit technician Michelle Robinson said officials likely won’t be able to review the applications for several weeks but will examine them for compliance with about 900 pages of commercial building codes covering everything from snow load to accessibility to fire alarms.

The Academy has also filed an application to connect to the town water supply and wastewater treatment systems. That application explains that the campus will be built to accommodate growth to a total of 265 students and 40 faculty.

Town Engineer Brian Lenz said the application is “nonstandard” because the location is outside town limits, so the request must be approved by the Jackson Town Council. Lenz said the council will consider its alignment with the Comprehensive Plan as well as the capacity of the water and sewer system.

The Jackson Hole Classical Academy will host an open house Thursday, May 16, for the community to learn more about the new school facilities. The open house will be held at its current campus, 3255 W. High School Road. Afterward the Academy will host its awards ceremony and annual Evening of the Arts, which showcases student artwork and performances.

A previous application with Teton County for a new school included substantial acreage to be placed under conservation easement, as required under county rules to allow for increased density. Friess did not say whether permanent conservation remains part of the school plans, but said she’s “in conversation with landowners about conserving the property.”