Parents, teachers speak out over closure of 2 Utah elementary schools

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karen Haslam wipes a tear from her eye, after the Granite School District's Board of Education voted to close Westbrook Elementary school, where she teaches, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

There are exactly 13 houses in between where Kaleb Knobel lives and the elementary school where his children go.

That number is a source of pride for Knobel, who bought his home specifically because of the short distance. He likes sending his three boys off in the morning and being able to hear the school bell ring from his backyard at the end of the day, knowing they’ll be back home soon.

Next year, though, his youngest kids — 5, 8 and 11 years old — won’t be walking anymore to and from Westbrook Elementary School in Taylorsville.

Granite School District will close the school in May after years of declining enrollment. The more than 470 students will be spread among other elementary schools in surrounding neighborhoods. And Knobel’s boys will be bused or carpooled to a school more than a mile away.

“We just feel steamrolled,” the dad said. “That school is where my boys made all their friends.”

Knobel attended the district’s school board meeting Tuesday night with the hope of convincing members to hold off and not shutter the elementary school so soon. Several parents pleaded along with him as their kids napped in chairs during the tense and bitter two-hour discussion.

By the end, though, the board voted unanimously to close both Westbrook as well as Sandburg Elementary in West Valley City — a pair of decisions that will displace more than 700 students between the two schools — as the district continues to grapple with decreasing student populations.

Several members said there was no other viable choice.

“Closing schools is one of the hardest things that school boards have to vote on and consider,” said Karyn Winder, board president. “Demographics are changing and populations are declining in some of our areas. A hard vote is the right vote sometimes.”

Granite School District has 65,000 students. Nearly a decade ago, it had 70,000. That decline is at least partially because the communities it serves, spread widely across Salt Lake County, are maturing and there are fewer kids in the neighborhoods that feed into the district. Many students, too, have transferred to charter schools opening in the area.

The two elementary schools that will now close were suggested by the district’s population analysis committee. That group has spent the past year looking at schools to determine where resources are being wasted with empty classrooms, too many teachers and too few students. They also considered what buildings were in the worst condition.

Sandburg Elementary currently has 245 students. That’s the smallest elementary population anywhere in the district. No other even dips below 300.

Since 2009, the enrollment has dropped down from its peak at nearly 500 kids. In just the last year, the school has seen a decrease of more than 50 students.

“That’s still not a good enough answer,” said Ryan Reneer, who has a child at Sandburg.

He told the board Tuesday night that he’s disappointed in the decision and plans to pull his kid out of the district entirely. “We chose to go there. And we have loved it there. It has been nothing but a positive experience.”

Reneer said he’d previously had a bad experience trying to enroll his kid at Jackling Elementary, where his child would be shuffled once again after the closure.

Jackling was also considered for shuttering, but the board ultimately decided against. Though it’s building was finished just one year after Sandburg’s — in 1967 — it’s in much better condition. (On the list of buildings in the district needing repair, with the first being the worst, Jackling is No. 61. Sandburg is No. 8.) It also has 350 kids.

Sandburg Elementary, meanwhile, is in a constant state of disrepair. Under a $238 million bond — approved by voters in 2017 — it was on the priority list to be rebuilt.

Now some in the community are frustrated that they were promised a new school and won’t get one because of the closure.

“But why rebuild a school you don’t need?” said Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley. “That would be a potential savings of $30 million for taxpayers.”

As a compromise, the board voted to shutter Sandburg but leave it on the list to potentially be rebuilt again in 10 or 15 years if the population rebounds by then.

Students currently at Sandburg will be spread between two other elementary schools in the district. And kids at Westbrook will be split among four nearby schools. All of the resulting schools will have enrollments above 500.

For Westbrook, the recommendation was about population but also focused heavily on transportation.

The school’s boundaries in Taylorsville are split by Bangerter Highway. The busy, high-speed street, laid out like a freeway, is dangerous to cross on foot. And the state will soon remove a pedestrian bridge that crosses over it near the school.

Currently, many students are bused over it so they don’t have to walk, but it’s expensive for the district to run such a short commute, Horsley said.

“We want school communities to be walkable,” he added. “We want kids to be able to attend schools in their neighborhood, if possible.”

Westbrook is the only school where kids have to cross the highway to get to the front doors. So while some similarly close elementaries had slightly fewer students, the district recommended closing Westbrook to clear up the commuting problem. Just redrawing the boundaries didn’t solve the low enrollment issues.

“We’re looking at it from a non-emotional standpoint,” Horsley said. “It was really based on data and numbers.”

With Sandburg and Westbrook, Granite School District will now have closed three elementaries in less than a year. The board of education voted previously in January to shutter Oquirrh Hills Elementary in Kearns after years of poor performance. Unlike with that, however, test scores were not a factor with Tuesday’s decisions.

Several parents, including Knobel, said they weren’t listened to in the process and believe there should have been more opportunities for feedback, more time and more options. Roughly 40 people attended the meeting Tuesday night. Knobel noted that he didn’t find out about the closures until this summer.

“You’re not listening to us,” he said, pointing around the room. “Why not give parents a chance to share their desires?”

His sons will now have to cross 6200 South to get to their new elementary school. That route, he said, is “just as dangerous” as Bangerter Highway and includes walking past a rehabilitation clinic.

Karen Haslam, a teacher at Westbrook, cried as she left the meeting. She’s been at the elementary for 14 years.

“We work together as a family. And it is hard to see that come apart,” she told the board. Some of her students hugged her before and after she spoke.

Ranleigh Johnson, a substitute in the district, added that “the communication about this has been lacking. … Now you have an element of distrust.”

Steve Hogan, the district’s director of planning and boundaries, said it’s been difficult and emotional — and suggested that looking at the process logically can be “like bringing a calculator to a knife fight.”

But he promised the recommendations were guided by community feedback with eight open houses and postcards sent to all affected families. Schools with too few students, too, he added, can face major problems, including not enough teachers, insufficient funding for programs and problems with year-end testing data being more easily swayed by one “ineffective classroom.”

“We’ve honestly, sincerely, earnestly looked at these options,” Hogan said. “It reached a tipping point in the last few years.”

Several board members added that it was a hard decision and schools are “the gem of a neighborhood.” But, though some may be adversely impacted, members said the closures were the best for the majority of students’ education. And, chairwoman Winder noted, shuttering the low-enrollment schools will save taxpayers some money.

“We need to do what is best for our kids,” added board member Nicole McDermott. “And this is best.”

The redrawn boundaries will start with the new school year in August.

Staff at both Westbrook and Sandburg will be spread around the district where there’s need. Additionally, no decisions have been made on what to do with either building. They could be demolished, used for storage or sold.

The district has nearly 90 schools. Of those, 61 are elementaries. Now, there will be 59 in operation.

Steve Swasey, a parent of four kids at Westbrook, said he strongly disagrees with the closure and calls the Bangerter reasoning “a pseudo-problem.” But, he added, at least the spaces should be turned into parks “where families can get together and barbecue and fly kites.”

He’s got twins in third grade, a daughter in fifth grade and a son in sixth grade. Knobel’s boys are in preschool, third and sixth. The two families are friends, and now the kids could end up at different schools.

“They’re so worried about it,” said Swasey.

Knobel added: “It’s not fair.”