Utah County’s Alpine School District to consolidate two Orem elementary schools, sparking talk of a district split

American Fork • Board members of the Alpine School District voted unanimously late Tuesday on a controversial consolidation plan that would combine two Orem elementary schools – a decision that has led opponents to consider splitting away from the district.

The decision to merge Hillcrest and Scera Park Elementary schools brought relief to some, while others felt their concerns over the move were ignored, despite the district delaying its vote twice to allow for more public comment.

“I feel like the can was just kicked further down the street,” said Hillcrest parent Rebecca Clarke before the meeting. “It’s been three months and I think the extra time has done nothing but try to appease those who opposed their proposal.”

Frustrations over the plan’s ultimate closure of Hillcrest have run so high that some parents, including Clarke, say they are pursuing an independent feasibility study to see if breaking away from the Alpine district would be viable for Orem and other surrounding cities.

Board members say seismic safety concerns, low enrollment, tight budgets and the short distance between the two schools drove their unanimous approval of the consolidation, sparked in part by growing enrollment in northern and western parts of the district but not others.

‘More opportunities’

The plan approved Tuesday will ultimately combine Hillcrest and Scera Park into one new school, slated to open on Scera Park’s property in the 2019-2020 school year, hold between 750 and 800 students and combine teaching staffs of both schools. Hillcrest will be closed and torn down once the new school’s opens. Combining the two schools, district officials said, the could save roughly $1.7 million annually.

Supporters of the consolidation view it as a way to enrich education for Hillcrest and Scera Park students with additional specialty classes and financial support made possible by the new school’s higher student enrollment.

“For me, this gives us more money which means more opportunities for my kids,” said Cissy Rasmussen, a Hillcrest parent and the school’s community council chair. “Larger schools are able to do things we cannot do because we are working on just providing the basics [at Hillcrest]. And even though we are doing an amazing job, but the [teachers and students] deserve access to more.”

But opposing parents and community members said they believe the district didn’t consider alternatives to closing and tearing down Hillcrest, such as redrawing school boundaries. Natalie Clawson, a Hillcrest parent, said boundary changes could ease overcrowding at nearby schools while helping boost Hillcrest student enrollment.

Combining Hillcrest and Scera Park is part of a larger plan to address Orem school’s declining student population, aging buildings and limited finances. Additional moves being considered by the school board could affect Geneva, Suncrest and Bonneville elementary schools, said assistant superintendent John Patten.

The district first gave notice of its consolidation plans with a Sept. 13 email to parents, teachers and administrators. The board had scheduled its vote in October, but ultimately postponed to November and then to December after several parents complained the district was rushing the decision.

JoDee Sundberg, a school board member from Orem, said she had agonized over what was best for Orem students. But seeing new learning opportunities available to students in growing areas of Alpine School District made it clear, Sundberg said, that combining Hillcrest and Scera Park was the right choice.

“It was so important to me to take care of the needs of Orem,” she said. “But I needed to be able to do it in a fiscally responsible way as we were continuing to have needs in the west and the north [ends of the district].”

A brewing split?

Patten said the district’s next step will be deciding if the new school will be a one- or two-story building. That decision will determine whether Scera Park students and faculty can remain in their current building during the rebuild or will have to be temporarily moved to Hillcrest and portable classrooms, which could cost the district roughly $2.5 million.

But for many parents fighting the plan, Tuesday’s vote seemed to confirm their view that the needs of the diverse cities within the sprawling Utah County district are not being met — prompting them to proceed with a study of forming their own district.

Parents and citizens opposed to consolidation have met with attorneys, members of the Orem City Council and state legislators about conducting a feasibility study, Clawson said. A private citizen, who wants to remain anonymous, plans to cover the study’s costs.

Splitting from Alpine isn’t a new concept for Orem. About a decade ago, city officials had considered creating a new district apart from Alpine – an effort narrowly defeated in a 3-4 city council vote.

State law provides for several ways to create a new school district. An existing district’s school board can vote to split; a municipality within a district can vote put the question on the ballot; or citizens can petition for a split to be placed before voters by collecting a certain percentage of registered voter signatures.

Clawson said several residents are already reaching out to taxpayers throughout Orem to gauge interest in a district split and plans to talk with city leaders and community members in nearby cities such as Lindon and Vineyard.

The issue is drawing interest, Clawson said, from city officials and at least one key state lawmaker, Sen. Margaret Dayton.

Dayton, R-Orem, wrote Clawson in a recent email that “it isn’t fair to expect one school board to meet the demands of a large, fast growing and diverse district” and that smaller districts would allow for more parent input and local control.