West and Highland high schools may be rebuilt in Salt Lake City; here’s what’s next

Amid controversy over their suspension of the district superintendent, school board members are considering whether to ask voters to support a building bond.

Fewer kids are attending Salt Lake City schools and school board members have acknowledged that some may face closure.

But its three traditional high schools are a bright spot — many of the 2,300 students the district draws from other areas attend East, West or Highland, and their enrollment isn’t declining.

So for the first time since 1999 — when voters supported a $136 million spending proposal for renovating, rebuilding and building elementary and middle schools — the school board may ask Salt Lake City residents to approve a bond for millions in new building costs.

The district is now reviewing bids from design firms to create plans and budget estimates for rebuilding historic West High, a few blocks northwest of downtown Salt Lake City, and Highland High, on the city’s east side, on their current sites.

East High was rebuilt in 1997 with a separate $70 million bond, from 1993.

The proposals submitted for West have been evaluated by the district’s purchasing department, which is still examining plans for Highland, spokesperson Jason Olsen said this week. The school board hasn’t made any final decisions to pursue the rebuilds, he noted, and if it does, construction won’t get underway unless voters approve a bond to fund it.

As the next step, the purchasing department will make recommendations to board members at their Aug. 2 meeting. That conversation comes as the district is in some disarray.

Superintendent Timothy Gadson has been placed on leave for reasons the board has declined to explain; one of his cabinet leaders has abruptly left after less than six months in the job; parents have questioned the number of new administrators the district has hired during Gadson’s tenure — and the board has yet to make decisions about how to deal with the looming financial impact of declining elementary enrollment.

For now — new district offices

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The vacated Salt Lake City school district headquarters at 440 E. 100 South.

In the meantime, the board is finishing up the spending that was planned back in 1999, with a rebuild of the district office on 440 E. 100 South.

Big-D Construction of Salt Lake City has the $34 million building contract, with that total approved by board members in June. The district also will use $520,000 in the upcoming school year to lease offices for district employees at 465 S. 400 East, according to a recent spending request.

The office was the last on a list of district buildings that needed to be made earthquake-safe. But the building also was showing its age — with some cracks splitting cement walls and the carpet of some offices beginning to ripple.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cracks are visible on the ceiling of the vacated Salt Lake City school district headquarters during a liquidation sale on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

Demolition is scheduled for early August, Olsen said.

Earlier this spring, school board members briefly considered building the new offices on a practice field next to West High’s softball field, between 200 and 300 West.

That would have saved $5.9 million, according to estimates by the architect. While the current office sits on a slope and needs a foundation and retaining walls that accommodate that, the practice field is on flat ground. The district also could have sold the existing building, rather than paying to demolish it, and left employees in place during the construction, rather than paying for temporary space.

But board members panned the idea — with one teacher pointing out the working conditions at aging West High, at 241 N. 300 West.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) West High School in Salt Lake City, Monday, July 18, 2022.

Board member Katherine Kennedy said teachers told her that hearing about the new building made them feel like the district was kicking them while they’re down; one teacher described feeling that her tank was empty from teaching during the pandemic.

“They beg for good teachers to teach at inner city schools, and this is what we get — looking at a new building through windows that are so old they don’t keep the bugs out, let alone the cold. Typical,” Kennedy said one teacher told her.

“It will be important for the board to let teachers know that it has plans to update West High,” Kennedy said.

Board member Kristi Swett said she wanted the office building to be located elsewhere, to better support the rest of the schools in the district. And board member Mohamed Baayd added: “It does not feel right to come and build a multimillion dollar building in front of a historic building that itself needs a lot of work.”

Needs at West and Highland

West and Highland have both been retrofitted to be earthquake-safe, but they may need work for other reasons, district spokesperson Yàndary Chatwin recently told KSL NewsRadio. “We want to make sure we are providing our students the best facilities in which to learn,” she said.

West High is celebrating this year the 100-year anniversary of the last time the school was rebuilt, in 1922. Wings have been added to that historic structure over the years.

Parents and alumni have said on social media that they want West to maintain its traditional and unique appearance, and not become another generic modern-looking school.

West’s enrollment is currently around 2,700, the district said in its request for proposals. It’s looking for a building that could accommodate up to 3,000 students

Highland High, built in 1956 at 2166 S. 1700 East, currently has around 1,915 students, the district said in its bid packet. It wants a building that can accommodate up to 2,200 students.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Highland High School in Salt Lake City, Monday, July 18, 2022.

This school year, the district budget shows, the repair work scheduled for Highland includes asbestos abatement, replacing old tile flooring and switching in more tempered glass.

Both schools have maintained their enrollment as the same levels for the past five years.

During an April discussion about sending out the requests for proposals to rebuild both high schools, board members discussed the possibility of putting a bond before voters in November 2023. The board will vote on whether and when to propose a bond measure after members select the design firms in the August board meeting, Olsen said.

Swett expressed a hope that new West and Highland buildings might boost enrollment, recalling the work funded by earlier bonds.

”If we build them, they will come,” Swett said. “We saw that in the ‘90s and in the 2000s, because we had beautiful buildings in our district.”

Editor Sheila R. McCann contributed to this report.

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