As Salt Lake City booms, its schools are emptying

A persistent decline in enrollment is now “districtwide, and that’s concerning,” a consultant warns school board members.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In May 2019, Mountain View Elementary students celebrated with graduating seniors who were visiting from East High School. A new report says enrollment in Salt Lake City schools has fallen and will continue to decline. Mountain View had 684 students five years ago, had 473 students this fall, and is projected to drop to 412 students in 10 years.

To help predict the future, a researcher looked at more than 4,600 apartments built in downtown Salt Lake City in recent years and traced the kids who live there. Here’s how many he found enrolled in the city’s schools: 69.

The dramatic gap between those numbers illustrates how, despite Salt Lake City’s booming population and housing supply, the capital city’s school district is shrinking. There are fewer students especially in elementary and middle schools, demographer Rick Brammer told school board members this week.

This fall’s enrollment of 19,833 is 3,200 fewer kids than five years ago. And Brammer predicts that 10 years from now, the Salt Lake City School District will drop under 17,000 students. Continuing decreases in enrollment could mean the district will need to employ fewer teachers and eventually shut some schools.

Housing costs, the rapid decline in Utah’s birth rate, the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing competition in education all play a role in why Salt Lake City is shedding kids, said Brammer, of Arizona-based consulting firm Applied Economics. Here are highlights from his draft report.

Why is enrollment falling?

The school district’s population has grown by 13,000 people since 2010, according to census data cited by Brammer, and 11,500 new housing units were built in its boundaries during that same period.

But in downtown Salt Lake City, for example, the number of new residents under age 18 rose by fewer than 800.

“It’s a prosperous area,” Brammer said. “ ... The nature of that growth is just shifting away from the school-age population. It’s obviously gentrifying.”

While Brammer looked at housing projects downtown, he said, he didn’t “see anybody who was talking about playgrounds and swing sets. We’re talking about workout rooms and coffee bars and all that kind of stuff that adults generally want.”

He tracked students from 27 apartment complexes built downtown between 2010 and 2019. Another 4,000 apartments have been added or planned since then, his report said.

Sliding birth rates in Utah are also contributing to the drop in enrollment. Utah’s birth rate remains above the national rate, but it’s dropping at a faster pace, the report said, citing census data.

(Applied Economics) A graph from a presentation by demographer Rick Brammer, of consulting firm Applied Economics, to the Salt Lake City School Board. Declining birth rates are one reason the district's enrollment is sinking, he said.

The continuing pandemic is likely also depressing enrollment, Brammer said, noting, “I don’t think everyone is comfortable coming back to school yet.” And with the rapid spread of online classes and other learning options, “people are getting more and more used to accepting educational alternatives,” he said.

There are nine charter schools within the district’s boundaries, including three authorized by the district, and a relatively high number of private schools, at 11, Brammer added.

Where is enrollment dropping the most?

In the five years prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment had declined substantially in the densely populated neighborhoods west of Interstate 15, according to the report.

But the decline has been more widespread in the district since the 2019-20 school year, though the areas west of I-15 are still showing the greatest drop — in conjunction with falling population there.

In the 2014-15 school year, 16 of Salt Lake City’s 27 elementaries had more than 500 students. This year, none does, according to the report.

In three charts, here are enrollment trends and Brammer’s projections for each of Salt Lake City’s elementary, middle and high schools.

What’s projected for the district’s future?

The district’s population will increase by about 14,000 people by 2032 — but the number of K-12 students enrolled will fall by about 2,650, according to Brammer’s projections.

The decline will impact Salt Lake City’s elementary (15% drop overall) and middle schools (18% drop overall) the most, his report predicts. Only Mountain View Elementary is projected to still have more than 400 students, dropping to 412 from 684 five years ago. Northwest is projected to be the biggest middle school, with 504 kids, down from 923 five years ago.

But Brammer expects only a 10% overall decline in the high school population. “Housing prices are skyrocketing,” he said. “That forces young families out, and so the kids you do get in are typically going to be an older age profile.”

What can the district do?

The district’s high schools are not seeing the same declines, Brammer pointed out — and many of the 2,300 students it draws from other areas attend one of its three traditional high schools, East, West and Highland. Most out-of-district students are from South Salt Lake and West Valley City.

(Applied Economics) A map from a presentation by demographer Rick Brammer, of consulting firm Applied Economics, to the Salt Lake City School Board. The green dots indicate where students in Salt Lake City's schools live.

Brammer suggested the board continue to use its high schools to bring in students who live outside district boundaries. By offering unique programming — such as the Career and Technical Education classes for high schoolers — officials may be able to mitigate losses and attract more students, said Leeson Taylor, executive director of school leadership and performance for the district.

District leaders also could examine which charter schools are attracting students and how they are doing it, Brammer said.

And Salt Lake City is making steps in the right direction by requiring that new housing complexes offer a percentage of units at below-market value, Brammer said, but more affordable options will be needed to slow the decline. New apartment complexes are either too expensive or do not offer amenities that support families with children, according to the report.

“Affordable housing is a major issue,“ Brammer said. “... Everybody is aware that it’s a problem, but it’s something that’s really a problem for us when we’re talking about kiddos.”

What’s next?

Brammer’s report, which he presented Tuesday, will be finalized and submitted to the board within two weeks, he said. The board will discuss it in February or March.

Declining enrollment “should be a priority for the district,” board member Kristi Swett said in October, after the district’s fall 2021 enrollment was announced. The board discussed then the idea of creating new specialized academic programs to attract students, and whether it could work with the Salt Lake City Council to address the price of housing for families.

Also on Tuesday, the city’s elected leaders continued to discuss how to overhaul their system for doling out millions in housing loans and other incentives to developers who build additional affordable housing. They say they are trying to tilt construction toward apartments and condominiums that have multiple bedrooms, particularly downtown.

”The pendulum is moving way to the side, where it’s studio, one-bedroom, maybe two bedrooms,” said Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, chair of the city’s Redevelopment Agency board. “And we need more diversity than that.”

Valdemoros, who also represents downtown-centered District Four, said the city loan policies needed to prioritize dwellings that are “what we call ‘family-sized.’ We want families to be able to stay in Salt Lake City.”

— Reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this story.

(Applied Economics) A district enrollment graph from a presentation by demographer Rick Brammer, of consulting firm Applied Economics, to the Salt Lake City School Board.