Salt Lake City is cutting teacher positions and will start considering which schools to close

The board voted to sidestep staffing ratios that would have required schools to drop the equivalent of 76 teachers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Due to declining enrollment, the Salt Lake City school board voted Tuesday to have district staff move forward with a plan to reduce the teaching workforce by the equivalent of 42 full-time teachers in the 2022-23 school year. East and West high schools are each currently slated to lose the equivalent of two teachers.

Salt Lake City’s schools have lost so many students that, on paper, they needed to shed the equivalent of 76.5 full-time educators next year, district leaders warned Tuesday.

School board members voted to soften that cut by roughly half — but they also agreed to start the process of evaluating which of the district’s schools to close. The procedures for closing a school take two years to complete, Superintendent Timothy Gadson said.

“This district is getting smaller ... and we have to stand up and face that music. That’s what we’re here for,” board member Katherine Kennedy said. " ... We have to start now.”

Gadson said he will bring a study list of schools to the board by the end of the month, allowing discussions to begin in March. His list will be based on enrollment, the capacity of school buildings and educational opportunities for students, he said.

In the meantime, the board voted to have district staff move forward with a plan to reduce the teaching workforce by the equivalent of 42 full-time teachers in the 2022-23 school year.

With the number of expected resignations or retirements and the conclusion of existing one-year contracts, Human Resources Executive Director Logan Hall said, he does not expect to have to eliminate anyone’s position through a reduction in force.

The proposal reviewed by the board Tuesday night called for East and West high schools to each lose the equivalent of two full-time teachers — though Hall noted it’s not uncommon for high schools to add or lose two to four teachers in any given year.

The Salt Lake Tribune requested the document, shared with board members Tuesday night, that provided further details of the locations of the proposed cuts. A spokeswoman declined Wednesday morning to immediately release the document and The Tribune has filed a public records request for it.

Board members directed staff to have conversations with individual schools to potentially refine the proposal for where to make reductions.

Last month, board members reviewed a demographic analysis that said enrollment in Salt Lake City school district will continue to fall, even as the city’s population booms. A demographer told the board that this fall’s enrollment of 19,833 is 3,200 fewer kids than five years ago. Ten years from now, enrollment will drop under 17,000 students, he predicted.

The next year’s hiring plans are not typically brought before the board for review, Gadson said. But following the student-to-teacher staffing ratios set by the board — based on projected enrollment for each school next year — “would prompt action that we think might shock the system,” he explained.

For some schools, the staffing reductions called for under the staffing formula “would take our schools below what would allow them to offer a basic education program,” Gadson said.

Staffing is described in full-time equivalents; meaning two teachers who each work half-time are one FTE. Hall explained that his proposal for where to reduce, by 42 FTE instead of 76.5 FTE, would be more reasonable for schools to absorb next year.

To cover the 34.5 FTE positions that would be kept, Business Administrator Alan Kearsley explained, “We would use a one-time fund balance because the plan isn’t to never hit these cuts. It’s to mitigate it a little bit for next year and then hit the other half the year after.”

The district’s staffing ratios provide one FTE for every 30.2 high school students. It allocates one FTE for every 28 students in grades 4-8; for every 25 students in grades 1-3; and for every 50 kindergarten students.

The position cuts come as Salt Lake City and other districts throughout the state struggle to find substitute teachers and lunch workers, amid the ongoing spread of the coronavirus.

On Wednesday morning, Rep. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, asked the state Legislature for $10 million to retroactively pay teachers for taking on extra work during the pandemic.

“We really ought to be paying teachers overtime for that work,” Fillmore said. “This proposal is to pay teachers double time for [prep] time that they gave up or [if they] worked extra hours in order to cover for their colleagues who were indisposed due to COVID.”

The public education appropriations subcommittee will weigh the request as it develops the fiscal 2023 budget.

Before the final vote, board members discussed whether to maintain current staffing even though it’s not justified by enrollment. The district draws 2,300 students who live outside its boundaries, and new programs could recruit more, they suggested.

Board member Kristi Swett initially suggested keeping current staffing, for now, while talking openly with teachers about the district’s situation and exploring options such as designing smaller class sizes.

Swett said she felt the staffing cuts were putting the cart before the horse, “by saying here, let’s get rid of everybody, based on, you’re right, on the [staffing] ratio, but yet we don’t know what the conversation’s going to be in and around the closing schools.”

The district could work to recoup trust with families who have left the district and recruit new students, board member Nate Salazar added.

“One of the major issues that we have with declining enrollment is gentrification, the development that’s happening in the community,” Salazar said. “But with that also comes additional funding relative to property taxes, and that might be able to carry us and float us as we come up with some more creative solutions to some of these problems that we’re dealing with.”

But Kennedy argued it’s “unrealistic” to expect that creative solutions can fully reverse the district’s shrinkage; even regaining 1,000 students seems unlikely, she said. The enrollment trajectory has been set for years, Kennedy said, noting a previous projection in 2018 that enrollment would go down to 17,000 students.

And even if the board were to postpone discussions about school closings, Gadson said, “there will need to be some [staffing] reductions because without reducing, you’re going to have to go into your reserves deeper.”