Salt Lake school board member quits; superintendent, who resigned earlier, gets new job

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City Board of Education kicked off a listening tour Jan. 13, 2020, at Bryant Middle School.

After earlier resigning her position as president, Tiffany Sandberg has now stepped down completely from the Salt Lake City school board.

Her departure comes after months of infighting among members and controversy in the district. And it also shortly follows Superintendent Lexi Cunningham’s resignation, effective this summer, when she will be taking over the Utah State Superintendents Association.

Reached by phone Thursday, Sandberg said she made the decision for personal reasons and did not elaborate.

When she stepped down as president of the board in February, she had said she would stay on as a member. At the time, though, she noted: “I feel that our board is fractured, and try as I might, I do not have the glue that can bring us back together.”

Sandberg was first elected in 2012.

The board will now accept applications for a new member to represent Precinct 1, which covers the northwest part of the city, including Rose Park. Those interested must apply by May 1 through a form on the district’s website, slcschools.org. The individual selected will fill the position through the end of the year. The spot is up for election in November.

The school board is also currently tasked with trying to find a replacement for Cunningham, who stepped down at the end of January.

Member Michael Nemelka disclosed at the time that Cunningham was forced out after four other members voted to fire her if she didn’t voluntarily leave. He said she was “targeted” after some of the board asked her to fire 16 principals districtwide and she declined to do so. On that list was Ford White, formerly the principal at West High School.

The day after Cunningham resigned, the board voted to fire White. He had been on leave and under investigation since November when he drove students home after finding them drinking on school grounds. According to district policy for safety, he was supposed to call the police.

Sandberg had long supported both Cunningham and White.

Starting July 1, Cunningham now will be the executive director for the Utah State Superintendents Association and the associate executive director for the Utah School Boards Association. Both organizations lobby for education during the legislative session each spring.

“It’s a really long job title,” Cunningham said Friday with a laugh. “But I’m very excited. We have a tremendous group of superintendents throughout the state of Utah, and I’m in awe of what they’re doing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond that.”

She will focus on creating a mentoring program for superintendents and starting training sessions for “hot topics” in education. Cunningham succeeds Terry Shoemaker, who is retiring after 40 years in the role.

Several people have congratulated her on the position, including the governor’s education advisor Tami Pyfer. In a tweet to Cunningham, Pyfer wrote: “Best news I’ve heard all day!!!!”

Cunningham had led the Salt Lake City School District for four years. Before that, she was the superintendent over Arizona’s Tolleson Union High School District beginning in 2011 — having previously worked there as an English and social studies teacher and volleyball coach.

She had applied for several other superintendent positions across the country before receiving the offer at the school boards and superintendents associations.

Both the superintendent and the district have faced some public pushback over the past year.

There was the threat of a strike after teachers walked out of a district board meeting while requesting higher pay last summer. The district and the teacher union, though, ultimately came to an agreement before the academic year started — though the issue is likely to see a repeat during negotiations this year.

The district also faces challenges with enrollment, with 22,000 students in 37 schools. Across Salt Lake City, the student body is shrinking, and the school board has been forced to look at closing schools in response. That includes Bennion Elementary, one of the most diverse.

Parents were upset when the district announced its after-school program was understaffed and wouldn’t be able to enroll as many kids. Most who had kids enrolled there found out only three weeks before the school year began.

Additionally during Cunningham’s tenure, the school board grappled with losing a beloved member. Heather Bennett died in March 2019 after an unexpected vascular issue. Bennett had been treated for pancreatic cancer for several months before that.

Sandberg, in leaving, has previously said she’ll donate what remains in her campaign account to the Heather Bennett Memorial Scholarship Fund.