Utah lawmakers chastise Alpine School District over its proposed closures
Utah state lawmakers strongly criticized Alpine School District’s handling of potential school closures in an Administrative Rules Review and General Oversight Committee during the Legislature’s May 18 interim session.
This discussion came after 33 parents filed a lawsuit in April accusing the district of not following state law and taking steps toward closing five schools before properly notifying the community.
The district’s school board voted in November 2022 to study potential boundary changes and school closures after voters rejected a proposed bond that would have partially been used to fix aging, unsafe schools. Parents were notified in December about the study, but the email did not name any specific schools that could be on the chopping block.
“It doesn’t get real for a parent until their school’s name is listed on the notification,” said Rep. Brady Brammer during the committee meeting, who represents Alpine. “The way that this is, it kind of lulls you into it. It’s like, ‘we’re going to study it, we’re going to come back, we’re going to talk to people.’”
Two parents, who represented a group of parents, gave a presentation on their complaints about Alpine’s process and what they’d like lawmakers to do. And several parents spoke negatively about the district’s actions during public comment.
The district was required to notify parents 120 days before approving a school closure or school boundary change and allow opportunities for public comment, according to state code.
On Feb. 28, less than three months after the December email, the school board approved a motion to direct staff to start the formal process of “closing Sharon, Windsor, Valley View, Lindon and Lehi elementaries” for the 2023-2024 school year, according to the minutes for that meeting.
The district told parents in an email after that meeting that the board had voted to “move various components of the General Boundary Study to a FORMAL STUDY” and that they were only looking at proposed closures, nothing had been decided.
After several open houses to hear public comment, the board voted to “continue the process” of potentially closing Sharon and Valley View elementaries after the current school year, and possibly close Lehi, Lindon and Windsor in 2024.
The allegation from parents and some lawmakers is that school board members had already made a decision of which schools to close during the Feb. 28 meeting, before parents were notified about which specific schools were on the table or given opportunities for comment.
Committee chair Sen. Curtis Bramble said it appeared as though the board had made a decision and then went through the motions of studying the issue.
“The overall arching concern is that everybody feels like the goose is cooked on these two schools prior to a final vote. And the teachers are acting as if it’s cooked, there’s no principal making plans for next year,” Brammer said.
Valley View Elementary parent Chad Hunsaker told the committee that his school’s PTA has not held any elections for the next school year since it could be closed by then.
Former Sen. Karen Mayne sponsored the 2019 law requiring 120 days notice before closing a school after the Granite School District school board voted to close a school less than a month after notifying the community.
“I can tell you she’s probably not happy if she’s listening to this committee because this was a very, very important bill for her that had to do [with] making sure parents feel empowered and not just be, you know, taken over by a district,” said Sen. Luz Escamilla. “There has to be that transparency.”
Escamilla said it feels like the district’s actions were just a cover-up after they had already made decisions and that she was disappointed, especially since Alpine is Utah’s largest school district.
“We will fix the statue and probably your school district will be the example of what not to do because clearly [you] did not follow the rule of the law as it was intended,” Escamilla said.
During the 2023 legislative session, Utah lawmakers shortened the notice period for a school closure from 120 days to 90 days. However, that law did not go into effect until May and would not have retroactively affected Alpine.
After the session ended, bill sponsor Sen. Jake Anderegg said he received two phone calls from Alpine school board members, who he would not name. To him, it appeared those board members were seeking “political cover.”
“Using the bill that I had passed to say, ‘Oh no, it wasn’t 120 days, it was 90.’ And it seems disingenuous to me,” Anderegg said. “It was never my intent in this legislation to provide political cover for Alpine School District for not following due process and what the law requires.”
Anderegg and some of the other committee members were irritated that none of the district’s school board members nor Superintendent Shane Farnsworth showed up for the hearing in person. Bramble said they were invited. One board member, Joylin Lincoln, was on Zoom.
The district was represented at the meeting by Executive Director of External Relations and Communications David Stephenson, Executive Director of Legal Services Kraig Brinkerhoff and Business Administrator Robert Smith.
The committee voted to subpoena the superintendent and school board to be in attendance and in person at the committee’s next meeting.
“The fact that they're not in the room answering these questions is going to lead to a series of legislation, several bills at least that will correct this and is bringing quite frankly, I hate to say this because I love you guys [Alpine School Board members], is going to bring the hammer,” Anderegg said.
The committee also voted to open a bill file relating to this issue and referred it to the Legislature’s education committee. Rep. Kera Birkeland said she wanted to make things absolutely clear so that “no other district can jump through these same loopholes.”
Brammer said it’s important that they fix the closure process because districts statewide will be closing schools over the next decade due to Utah’s declining school-age population.
The Alpine School Board could vote on closing the schools at its June 30 meeting, which the district’s timeline says is 122 days after parents were emailed on March 1, 2023, about which specific schools could close. During the committee meeting, Stephenson declined to answer when, according to his interpretation or the district’s interpretation, the 120-day period actually started due to the lawsuit.