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Parents claim SLC district official had a conflict of interest with school closures

Brian Conley, the director of boundaries and planning for the Salt Lake City School District, listens to community members in a screen capture from a public meeting on school closures, Sept. 12, 2023.
Salt Lake City School District
Brian Conley, the director of boundaries and planning for the Salt Lake City School District, listens to community members in a screen capture from a public meeting on school closures, Sept. 12, 2023.

Some parents in the Salt Lake City School District are asking the school board to redo its recent school closure study over claims the district official overseeing much of the process had a conflict of interest.

The board voted on Jan. 9 to close four elementary schools, following recommendations from the district after conducting a population and boundary study.

Brian Conley, the district’s director of boundaries and planning, was often the public face of this effort. In a Jan. 26 email to Superintendent Elizabeth Grant and board members, parents from the four schools alleged that Conley had a “clear conflict of interest.”

They point to Conley’s spouse, who is the principal of an elementary school within the district, and that his stepchild attends a separate elementary school. Both schools were not recommended for closure. His stepchild’s school was one of three schools the district decided to further study, but in the end was not chosen.

KUER confirmed Conley’s spouse through a copy of a marriage certificate from the county clerk’s office. They were married on Aug. 15, 2023. The parents said they confirmed which school Conley’s stepchild attends through a public record.

The group says these connections “suggest a direct personal economic interest in ensuring the job security of his spouse, all of which undermines public confidence in the District and the school closure process.” They also believe this violates the state’s and district’s ethics policies.

After being appointed by former Interim Superintendent Martin Bates, Conley met with community members, principals and other stakeholders to get feedback and share the district’s process — meeting with more than 700 people at more than 58 meetings, according to the district.

A boundary options committee made up of 12 appointed district employees and Conley sorted through the data. They created a spreadsheet that analyzed the district’s 27 elementary schools based on several factors and gave each a final score. Besides Conley, the identities of the other members have not been publicly shared.

Conley presented regular updates to the school board on the community input they received and the committee’s overall work. Over the summer, they recommended seven schools that should be further studied for potential closure. The recommendation was approved by the board on Aug. 1.

“The credibility of evaluations for all elementary schools involving Mr. Conley is now suspect, if not tainted and questionable. Further, it is now impossible to know if the information upon which the Board made its decision is fair and accurate since that information is tainted by Mr. Conley’s public duties conflicting with his private interests on several levels,” the parent’s letter says.

The group is asking the district to place the issue on the board’s Feb. 6 meeting agenda so it can be discussed publicly. They also want the decision to close the four schools revoked so the process can be done again in a more transparent way.

Conley declined to comment, deferring to the district’s spokesperson. The district did not respond to KUER's question about whether it and the board knew about Conley’s personal connections to the two elementary schools.

In a statement, Grant said she stood by the district’s process and decision — adding the recommendation from the boundary options committee was not created by a single person but by 13 people. While the committee looked at several factors to rank the schools, Grant said who the principal is was not a consideration.

“My recommendation in November to close four schools was made after thoroughly reviewing and analyzing a significant amount of data on all seven schools with my senior leadership team. I made that recommendation to the Board and it was not influenced in any way by personal relationships or improper motivations. The data and rationale clearly explain the basis for the recommendation and the Board’s ultimate vote. I stand behind the recommendation and the process and have no plans to ask the Board to reconsider its decision,” Grant’s statement continues.

Hawthorne Elementary parent Troy Davis, who was one of the parents behind the letter, said he was disappointed by Grant’s response. Davis said he, as well as other community members he’s talked with, had high hopes when Grant came on as superintendent in 2023. He thought she would be able to “right this ship” and turn Salt Lake City into a “flagship district” in Utah.

“We wholeheartedly supported her, all the way up until her response yesterday, actually,” Davis said. “We really want her leadership to fix the dysfunction in the district. And what her statement yesterday showed was that she's going to allow the dysfunction to continue and stand by that dysfunction.”

He was upset that Grant’s statement did not directly address the alleged conflict of interest the parents saw as a significant problem and Davis said he felt like she didn’t give the concern adequate attention

While the committee was made up of multiple people, Davis said Conley still had a significant role. And since Davis does not know who else was on the committee, he’s concerned there were other conflicts of interest that went unnoticed.

For now, Davis said he’s not sure what the next steps would be for the group of parents if it’s not discussed at the next board meeting.

“We do have the resources and the energy to take this further if we want to. But it does take away from what's really important at the end of the day, which is what's right for the kids. And so we'll continue to focus on that part of this.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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