Andy Larsen: Salt Lake City’s school closure effort is one big mess. Here’s how the district could do better.

With seven elementaries under scrutiny, couldn’t the SLC district try honesty, and finding appropriate data?

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Recently, I was asked to take my data-examining eye to the Salt Lake City School District’s school-closing process. In short, the district is trying to close some elementary schools in the wake of decreasing enrollment. So SLCSD released a scored spreadsheet comparing all 27 of its elementary schools to each other across 16 factors, upon which leaders decided seven schools should be studied for possible closure.

I’m a good candidate to fairly evaluate this process. I live in Salt Lake City, but wasn’t schooled there, instead going to schools in Murray and Sandy. I don’t have any emotional skin in the game — I’m a single dude with no kids. I’ve also demonstrated some data and decision analysis abilities over the course of my life.

And when I first heard about this controversy, I honestly took a skeptical glance toward the issue. Call it a “school parents are always complaining about something” kind of view.

But then I really dug into the issues here. I listened to hours of school board meetings. I read hundreds if not thousands of parents’ comments. I examined research on opening and closing schools, and ideal school size. I read the state Legislature’s audit. I looked at the school district’s data and enrollment report.

I came to this conclusion: this process is actually pretty messed up.

I don’t really know who to blame here, per se, though the district leaders and school board don’t exactly have a sterling history of communication among themselves or with the public. There have been oodles of meetings with stakeholders — principals, teachers, parents — throughout the process, with more upcoming. But, well, it’s just not anywhere near an optimal state of affairs, and in the wake of it, I think kids and parents alike are probably going to get unnecessarily hurt.

Let me explain.

Honesty in communication

Let me start here, because I think it taints the whole thing: they’re just not being upfront in communicating about much of this process.

District officials say they have been. It began in earnest in February, when the school board approved the study of all elementary schools for boundary changes and closures. Interim Superintendent Martin Bates appointed Brian Conley as the district’s director of boundaries and planning. Conley said he held 58 meetings from March through June with various stakeholders about their wants and needs. Then, the Boundary Options Committee met and decided to release the list of seven schools targeted for further study along with a scored spreadsheet showing how the committee came to decide those seven.

I’ve called it a “scored spreadsheet” because the committee does not like the term “scorecard.”

“That was never a scorecard, was never labeled a scorecard,” Conley said about the document. “I think that throughout this process, sometimes the convenience of labeling something a scorecard does lead people down the wrong path of how that was used.”

Well... sir. It’s a spreadsheet with various factors on it. Four teams of judges examined those factors, culminating in a rightmost column average that has the word SCORE in literal capital letters and bold font. Let’s be upfront about it. It’s a scorecard.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emerson Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. The Sugar House neighborhood school is one of seven elementaries under consideration for closure.

Leaders are also not pleased if you use the word “ranking” to describe the scored spreadsheet. That’s despite it being uploaded to the SLCSD website as “Ranking.pdf.” Come on now.

This stuff is just the tip of the iceberg. Conley was asked how — beyond these meetings — he and his committee were reaching out to parents. Would there be a survey? Is there any kind of communication other than the comment box on the website? Can anyone expect answers to their questions?

Conley said, after pointing to SLCSD’s Frequently Asked Questions page, “We are also trying to be realistic. If all I did was answer questions from the emails that came in, I think that right there would be more than a full-time job.”

Well, that sure seems like a solution. This should be a full-time job. The district should clearly and obviously hire a communications person, maybe more than one, to handle parental questions over the closures and the future of the district’s 20,000 kids. The expense for doing so would likely even be made back in per-pupil fees retained in SLCSD rather than in dollars lost as more frustrated parents move their kids to private or charter schools.

I have equity concerns here, too. Of the five meetings scheduled to discuss the closures, only one is in Spanish. That’s despite the school district being roughly equally Caucasian and Hispanic. (The district notes Spanish translation services are available at each meeting.)

Why close schools at all?

Why are we doing this at all? Aren’t smaller schools good?

First of all, the biggest reason is money. The Legislature’s audit last year emphasized that the district was spending too much money per pupil, largely because most schools weren’t nearing capacity in the wake of declining enrollment.

Declining enrollment in the Salt Lake City School District. (Image taken from SLCSD board meeting, Sept. 5)

Between 1964 and 1979, during the last big decline, the district closed a whopping 32 schools — more than the total number of elementary schools that exist now. The audit recommended closing six schools this go-round in order to get them up to 75% capacity. Doing so would reduce utility costs, which make up around $3.6 million, the audit said. That would likely mean a reduction in property taxes in Salt Lake City.

But if we’re honest, the proposal to close schools has caused much more of an uproar than the finding that taxes were too high. Even after the audit was released, the school board asked for a tax increase again this year with relatively little opposition.

However, there are non-financial reasons to merge schools, too.

Take Mary W. Jackson Elementary. Multiple parents commented on how the school’s dual immersion program, teaching many of the students in both English and Spanish, was terrific. But for the students who weren’t part of the dual immersion program, the English-only classes became problematic, because that’s also where administrators put the school’s students with behavioral issues or special needs. With only one class per-grade outside of the program, kids weren’t able to get the attention they needed as they likely would have at a larger school.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students file into a classroom at Mary W. Jackson Elementary on the first day of school on Aug. 22, 2023. Dr. Elizabeth Grant, superintendent of Salt Lake School District, right, and 6th grade dual language immersion teacher Amaia Lema welcome them. Mary W. Jackson is one of seven schools in the district being considered for closure.

What I struggle with is SLCSD’s 400 to 550 students per-school target. While the district calls that “right-sizing,” I wasn’t able to find a ton of evidence that it’s actually the right number. Mostly, school size research focuses on class sizes, not school sizes. But I was able to find one analysis that summarized the state of research in 2009. Then, three different studies asserted schools should be 300 students or less, two studies said the magic number was 350 students or less, and one found that 500 or less was correct.

Now, it’s highly possible the state of research has changed in the ensuing decade-plus. But I wish the district would cite its reasoning and analysis of why this 400-550 student target is correct.

Factors examined — and not examined

So the SLCSD noted that the scored spreadsheet looked at 16 different factors in deciding the seven schools for study. This is an exaggeration.

The 16 factors "considered" when deciding which Salt Lake City schools to put on the chopping block. (Image from SLCSD board meeting on Sept. 5)

There are no federal, state or court mandates at play, so cut that list down by one.

But more than that, it’s pretty clear when looking at which seven schools were actually selected that district officials cared about one factor far, far more than the rest: school age. Of the six schools built 35 or more years ago, five were selected. The other two were built in the second-oldest age range, 20 to 30 years ago. No newer schools were selected for closure.

If you look at the other factors, they’re all over the map, with no clear correlation to being safe or potentially shutting down. For example:

• Emerson Elementary was selected as a target despite it being one of SLCSD’s most highly attended schools.

• The district’s least-attended school, Bennion Elementary, was selected, but its second and third-least attended schools were declared safe.

• Schools near major streets and those tucked into quiet neighborhoods were selected.

• Conley cited limited numbers of elementary school classrooms at Bennion (26 classrooms), Emerson (28), Hawthorne (27), and Newman (29) but Bonneville (27), Mountain View (28), Uintah (29) and Washington (28) are all safe.

• Limited parking was cited as a reason to close Bennion, Emerson and Wasatch, but wasn’t addressed in the scored spreadsheet.

Look, I think age of school buildings should be a primary, and maybe the primary factor here. Building a new school costs oodles of money. New schools are nicer (more windows!) and have classrooms better set up for 21st-century learning — computer labs, outlets and so on. They’re more energy efficient. It’s smart to heavily consider age of a school. But the “16 factors” line is misleading, frankly.

And going forward, demographics, school designations, school feeder patterns and “student educational opportunities and academic performance” — all factors included on the scored spreadsheet — have been decreed to be “not in primary use for school closure decision making,” according to the district’s September memo.

I’m also concerned with the data district officials didn’t have — or say they didn’t have — while narrowing the list to seven. The district, Conley said, will “start to look at” additional data on the student residential population, including the “number of students who live within a 1-mile radius.” He also said that the committee would start looking at the square footage of classrooms. “Is that a classroom that can barely fit 20 students in it? Or is it a classroom that has plenty of space for 25 to 26 students?” Conley asked rhetorically.

Wait a second. You didn’t have this data before?

You mean to tell me that before you decided to alarm the parents of thousands of elementary school students with a threat to close their schools and change their lives significantly, you didn’t bother to look at how many people lived within a mile of those schools? You didn’t bother to check whether the classrooms would support new students at new schools? This seems like an extremely basic point to be considered before you announce your findings, not after.

Again, the mind boggles.

What the process should have looked like

I’m frustrated because as I read those pages and pages of comments from parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and even occasionally the elementary school kids themselves, I feel the vast majority of their concerns could have been avoided.

Most of the comments are pretty reasonable. Parents want to know what’s happening. In short, they want to know what’s happening to their kid’s program, or their kid’s bus, or their kid’s teacher or their kid’s friends. They’re anxious because of what they might lose, and have no idea where it might go.

That’s why I think the school district is doing this all wrong.

The current wackadoodle process: Seven schools are selected by 16-going-on-three factors not ranked on a non-scorecard by four subcommittees that are then further studied by five primary categories of critical principles before two public comment periods at the November board meeting to a panel of 10 or so, after which one or two months later the seven-member board will vote to close between 0% to 100% of the schools selected. Then, in the ensuing months, the board will pick up the pieces after closing the schools and try to put it all back together.

Whew. Follow that?

What the district should have done: Imagine a cohesive future, then build around it. Work hard behind the scenes to come up with logical reorganization plans. Capture all of the data necessary ahead of time — yes, even the square footage of the classrooms. Create various redistricting maps and tables in which boundaries are redrawn, school programs reassigned, teachers relocated and students are funneled to other nearby schools.

And yeah, those plans wouldn’t be perfect. Public comment would still happen, to be sure, and lots of it. Those plans would be subject to the political process too, and require editing here and there in responding to feedback.

But the school district could tout real progress. Leaders could explain to parents their kids get to go to school in a newer, brighter building, with these old friends and these new ones. They could explain how students will have access to these new programs or these new resources — thanks to the mergers — and be able to explain how to find the old ones in another school. They could outline how they’ll use these bus routes, or walk with these crossing guards. And how if there’s a problem, kids will have the ability to switch teachers, or have access to a larger team of special-needs staff members. Best of all, they could even help parents and the rest of the taxpaying public estimate the tax savings: “Here’s how much you’ll save as a result of all of this.”

There’s none of that right now — because no one knows what’s happening.

How could they, in such a backwards, boxed-in, image-obsessed state of affairs?

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com

Corrections • 4:45 p.m. Sept. 21, 2023: Brian Conley was appointed as the district’s director of boundaries and planning by interim superintendent Martin Bates. Between 1964 and 1979, the district closed 32 schools in total; not all were elementaries. The factors of demographics, school designations, school feeder patterns and “student educational opportunities and academic performance” are “not in primary use for school closure decision making” in the current study phase.