Here’s why Salt Lake City has postponed school closure process until 2023

Continuing the conversation about boundary changes and closures now would be “actually doing a disservice” to a hurting community, one school board member says.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kindergarten students work on math problems at Riley Elementary School in 2018. It is one of 14 schools that will continue to be informally evaluated for possible boundary changes or closure, but Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson has elected to push the formal process back to 2023.

Despite declining enrollment in the Salt Lake City School District and an initial move by its school board toward considering boundary changes and closures, that process will be postponed at least a year.

Superintendent Timothy Gadson told board members Tuesday he had decided against submitting an official study list to them, one of the first steps in the procedure. Board members had asked him to start work on a list and a proposal from district staff included 14 elementary schools; some are more than half empty, based on their capacity.

“I am actually recommending that we continue to study and work” with that list, Gadson said, “but that I not present a study list tonight and that we look at revisiting this next February. … I’m asking that we put a hold on this until next February when the new board is seated,” after a board election this fall.

The financial, emotional and health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic would be made worse by continuing the conversation now, said board member Mohamed Baayd, whose term ends in 2024. “The last thing we want to do is add more fire to the fire that is already going on,” he said.

Next year, he added, “we would have new board members and we will be able to carry on with the process from there. But right now, if we keep revisiting this, we are actually doing a disservice to the families, to the students, to the community, and teachers and staff who are hurting.”

The money question

Board members learned early in February that the district’s sagging enrollment — combined with its staffing formulas — would have called for funding 76.5 fewer teaching positions next year.

They voted then to keep some of those jobs funded, with retirements and attrition expected to account for the lost 42 positions, without layoffs. The retained 34.5 positions will be covered, Business Administrator Alan Kearsley explained, by “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 board’s willingness to find a solution then influenced his decision to wait before submitting a formal study list, Gadson said.

District officials didn’t specify Tuesday how any future financial gaps related to lower enrollment might be covered, with all elementary schools slated to remain open for another three years. Gadson has said the school closure process, now postponed for a year, requires two years to complete.

However, board member Nate Salazar asked about federal pandemic grants given to districts, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. Could they be tapped, he asked, for financial needs “over this next year, relative to staffing or special programs, any of those sorts of things?”

“We would have to look into that,” Kearsley answered.

Board President Melissa Ford noted “in a paradoxical way, when a school gets smaller, sometimes class sizes get bigger” — when a school has one teacher for a grade but gets too many students in that grade. She urged Gadson to remain flexible with classroom staffing, rather than allowing class sizes to grow in the next year.

“As we are moving forward, being able to promote our schools as having really small class sizes, and helping to have educational gains because of those class sizes, if we can measure that, that that’s a perfect use for what those ESSER funds are for,” Ford said, ”is to help us regain footing that may have been lost in that time.”

The postponement doesn’t mean the conversation is over, board member Kristi Swett said.

“We just need to be clear, superintendent, with our community, that we’re doing a moratorium,” Swett said. “If we use ESSER funds, whatever it is for this next year, I just don’t want our community to think that this isn’t going to be a conversation that we’re going to have to have.

“... We’re looking at this still, but yet we’re trying to also ease into this conversation.”

What’s next

Without the postponement, Gadson said, the boundary and closure review process would have been started by this school board and completed by a board that included different members, those who will be elected in November and added in January 2023.

The district’s procedures call for the process to begin in the month of February. Between now and next February, Ford noted, Gadson and his Cabinet will continue working on a proposal.

Two Cabinet-level positions were added at the beginning of the school year. Baayd asked Gadson to discuss why the district has been hiring for upper, Cabinet-level positions, while reducing the number of teaching positions — an issue Baayd said families have raised with him.

“Simply, a reduction in teacher workforce does not mean a reduction in services and support that the district still has to provide to the schools,” Gadson answered.

Only .46% of the district’s budget is used to pay administrative salaries and costs, he added. “The majority of the money that we spend from our budget is already in the schools,” he said.

Board member Katherine Kennedy said that she’s hearing a similar sentiment in her precinct, about “a declining district” adding administration. It’s a “legitimate concern that people have,” she said, “and I just hope that the superintendent and the superintendent’s Cabinet think about it very clearly and strongly, that that’s the feedback we’re getting from the public really clearly right now.”

West High School student Arundhati Oommen, who’s served as the board’s student member, said she is hearing the same concern from teachers.

“I think the goal of our board is to do the best for our students,” she said, “but I think that also means the way that we’re being taught in classrooms as well. And having really large class sizes — I go to classes that have so many students — and so I think there is a concern that I think is well-founded.”

The starting list

Here is the list Gadson suggested the district continue to review, as a starting point. Paul Schulte, the district’s executive director of Auxiliary Services, explained that to start, he convened the Cabinet and provided members with a map of elementary schools and basic statistics about them, such as enrollment and capacity. The list reflects patterns that emerged when members broke into small groups, he said.

“And I thought that was a really good place to start, because it jumped out at different folks that were working independently,” he said.

The group hasn’t started looking at programming in schools yet, he added. Kennedy also suggested evaluating all of the district’s elementary schools — not just these 14 — as well as considering the locations of past school closures.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)