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Like other Utah districts, Salt Lake City is weighing closing schools

Steve Hogan, a consultant hired by the Salt Lake City School District, gives a presentation at the Glendale Branch Library, May 22, 2023. Hogan explained what the population and boundary study process will look like and explained what factors the district considers when deciding to close a school.
Martha Harris
Steve Hogan, a consultant hired by the Salt Lake City School District, gives a presentation at the Glendale Branch Library, May 22, 2023. Hogan explained what the population and boundary study process will look like and explained what factors the district considers when deciding to close a school.

The Salt Lake City School District is studying which elementary schools to potentially close in 2024. This Population and Boundary Study comes after a 2022 state audit criticized the district for keeping so many elementary schools open in the face of declining enrollment for the past decade.

During a May 22 community meeting at Glendale Public Library, Steve Hogan, consultant for the district, emphasized that Salt Lake City Schools is not alone in navigating school closures.

“All school districts from now — probably for the next 10, 15, 20 years, based on demographic trends — are going to struggle with this issue,” Hogan told a group of parents and school employees.

The Alpine School District is looking at closing schools as soon as this fall, and the Granite School District is closing three elementary schools and will likely close more in the future.

The closures are a result of fewer kids in the state. Utah’s school-age population is predicted to be the slowest-growing demographic group in the state according to a December report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

The goal is to have at least three teachers per grade level in each elementary school. Hogan said some might think if there are fewer students at the school, that’s good news because that means smaller class sizes. But that’s not actually the case.

“If you have more students, you get more teachers. And if you have fewer students, you get fewer teachers,” Hogan said.

This is because schools receive funding to pay teachers based on the number of students they have. Total enrollment in the Salt Lake City School district has declined from 25,023 in Fall 2013 to 20,277 in Fall 2022 or almost 19%.

Hogan broke the district up into four areas and said solely based on striving to achieve at three teachers per grade level, at least a couple of schools would need to close in each area, though the exact number that will be closed is unclear. But numbers aren’t the only thing the district will consider in deciding closures, according to Hogan.

The district’s policies outline several factors that should be taken into consideration, including student safety, transportation capacity, special program facilities, financial implications and demographics.

“Every area, every school, every community is different,” Hogan said.

In August, the board could receive more specific recommendations and will decide whether to approve any of those options for further study. At that point, parents of students who attend schools on the potential closure list will be notified, according to the district’s schedule. The district will then hold public information sessions and two public comment periods before potentially voting in December 2023 and January 2024. The chosen schools would be shut down as early as fall 2024.

No specific schools were named during the May 22 meeting, which was the first in a series of meetings intended to inform parents and community members about the process. The meeting was translated into Spanish and the district said translation into other languages can be requested.

Only four parents attended, as well as a few district employees. The parents joked that while this meeting was small and quiet, future community meetings will be a lot more “lively” when specific schools are on the chopping block.

A couple of parents expressed concerns about this process being done equitably and wanted to make sure that any closures wouldn’t target the West Side of Salt Lake City more than the East Side.

In the southeast section of the district surrounding Highland High School, or “area 4,” there are more K-6 students enrolled than actually live in that area. Hogan attributed that to the number of special programs in the area.

One parent asked why “some of these programs, like the ELP [Extended Learning Program] program, are hyperconcentrated” there. Hogan said he didn’t know that history and would have to defer to the board.

School Community Council Chair at Parkview Elementary Paul Kuttner worries that preserving those hyperconcentrated East Side programs could mean more closures for the West Side. Kuttner said that would increase the longstanding educational inequities between the two sides of the district.

But Kuttner is also optimistic that if this process is done well, it could actually address some of those inequalities.

“As long as we're really focused on where resources need to go so that we can support all students in the district, and that voices — particularly communities of color, communities on the West Side, our communities around Title I schools — if those voices are actually influencing decision making, I think we can come to a really good decision,” Kuttner said.

Nellie Uluave’s daughter is in fifth grade at M. Lynn Bennion Elementary, which was threatened with a potential closure in 2019. Uluave is worried Bennion could be on the table again, and that it can’t compete with other schools that may have better test scores or programs.

Uluave remembers walking into Bennion for the first time. She saw a bunch of students of color coming down the stairs and knew that it would be a good place for her daughter, who is half-Polynesian and half-white.

She hopes the district takes the way students feel at school into account. About 78% of students enrolled at the school are racial or ethnic minorities.

Last time Bennion was on the table, Uluave said the community felt targeted and bombarded. But Uluave is encouraged by the timeline the district presented and the opportunities for community engagement.

She doesn’t envy the decision the district has to make. She knows it’s a hard one.

“It’s got to be equitable. I hope that’s what they’re going to stick to,” Uluave said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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