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Utah’s population is shifting away from kids and schools will need to adjust

A photo of a empty classroom.
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A research brief from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute predicts that between 2020 and 2060, Utah’s school-age population of 5-to-17-year-olds will only grow by 15%, whereas the state’s total population is projected to increase by 66%.

Utah’s school-age population is projected to be the slowest growing age group in the state, according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. This means some school districts will likely have to figure out how to respond to declining enrollment numbers, a challenge some districts already face.

A research brief from the institute predicts that between 2020 and 2060, Utah’s school-age population of 5-to-17-year-olds will grow by 15%, whereas the state’s total population is projected to increase by 66%.

“We're having fewer births. We have a lower total fertility rate than we used to in the past, and we project that's going to continue into the future,” said Director of Demographic Research Mallory Bateman.

Population growth will look different throughout the state and Utah County is expected to play a significant role in driving the growth of this younger demographic, according to the report. The number of school-age residents in the county is projected to increase by 46%.

Other areas looking at declining school-age populations include Emery, Millard and Sevier counties. Salt Lake County is projected to see its school-age population decline by 0.8%, which equals 1,874 fewer children in 2060 compared to 2020.

If the number of 5-to-17-year-olds goes down, school enrollment numbers will likely come down with it and districts statewide are already experiencing declining enrollment numbers. The public school system barely grew this school year compared to last year and only saw a 0.04% increase in students, according to the Utah State Board of Education.

In December, the Granite School District Board of Education voted to close three elementary schools due to declining enrollment and a recent state audit chastised the Salt Lake City School District for not closing schools despite enrollment going down for about the past decade.

“It is a significant challenge,” said Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley.

When enrollment numbers decline, Horsley said districts have to make sure they are not overburdening taxpayers and that students still receive a quality education. Horsley said too much growth causes problems for schools and so does shrinking enrollment.

“We've lost over 8,000 students in just the last 10 years alone,” he said. “We are definitely on a decline.”

Horsley attributes that to decreasing birth rates, an aging population and students moving to charter schools.

“Some of the areas that we serve are very mature neighborhoods and are not very ripe and welcome price-wise for new and young families,” he said.

The district will likely close one to two schools over the next couple of years and six to eight schools over the next decade, according to Horsley. He noted that the district has a timeline and process that it will follow to study an area before making any final recommendations.

“But at the end of the day, people don't like to see their schools closed. Everybody's attended a school at some point in time, and we all hold fond memories of those experiences and opportunities,” Horsley said.“It's always a challenge to close a school.”

The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute report projects the school-age population will start declining in 2024 and keep going down until 2035 when it’s projected to start growing again. Then, it will start declining again in 2056.

Bateman said the state’s changing demographics will change the needs of the community and communities across the state will have to have conversations about what that looks like.

“You might have to invest a little more in health care,” she said. “Amenities and communities might look different. You might not invest as much in really active playgrounds. You might put in a lot more trails or things that are approachable to different audiences.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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