Why is Salt Lake City thinking of rebuilding Highland High School?

The district has hired an architectural firm to create proposals and cost estimates for a reimagining of the school.

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

Every time it rains at Highland High School, Principal Jeremy Chatterton knows it’s time to spring into action.

He alerts his custodians, most of whom are already familiar with the school’s chronic flooding near the art wing and behind the auditorium. The custodians trudge out to soak up the water with buckets and mops. Chatterton scrambles for a new place to put any students affected by the flooding.

Flooding and years of patchwork repairs have pushed Highland — built in 1956 — toward “the end of its life cycle,” said Paul Schulte, executive director of auxiliary services for Salt Lake City School District, on Thursday. The district kicked off its plan to look at rebuilding the school with a meeting for the community Thursday night in the school’s auditorium.

The school board selected Salt Lake City-based firm Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects to conduct a feasibility study. NWLA will listen to community input to create proposals and cost estimates for a new school at the current site, 2166 S. 1700 East. The board will use those proposals to ask for a voter-approved bond to fund the rebuild, business administrator Alan Kearsley said.

A similar study is being conducted at West High School. Both studies will conclude in February.

NWLA recently completed reimaginations of Granger and Lehi high schools and is in the process of another at Skyline High School.

Architect Phillip Wentworth showed an audience of more than 50 parents and alumni the models and diagrams used to guide NWLA’s previous rebuilds. While Schulte said no planning has begun at Highland, Wentworth said NWLA prioritized providing open, collaborative spaces and bringing in natural light for students.

While it was reassuring to see the success NWLA has had in building shiny, glass-walled schools elsewhere, parent Hope Judkinson voiced concern with how the modern look of NWLA’s other projects would fit in with the surrounding architecture of the older Salt Lake City neighborhood.

“This neighborhood kind of prides itself on the historic homes and historic buildings,” Judkinson said in an interview. “... I get the sense that that is what draws people to this community. They don’t want the modern, newest [look], right?”

Seeing the glass exterior at Skyline and glass walls shown in rooms in NWLA’s models was “kind of terrifying, unless they’re bulletproof glass walls,” Judkinson said.

“I think it is naïve to not consider safety,” Judkinson added. She felt like NWLA made it clear that safety will be a priority in rebuilding Highland, but wanted to put it on their radar for future discussions.

Rebuilding could also disrupt the high school experience of her children, she said. Would her daughter, who is in sixth grade, have to miss out on musical theater opportunities at Highland, she wondered, if the auditorium is being torn down?

Wentworth outlined how the firm used massive portable classrooms and a segmented approach to reconstruction — that is, only working on one section of a school at a time — to keep schools efficiently operating in NWLA’s past projects.

Making Highland a more sustainable school will be key in helping the district reach its goal to be carbon-neutral by 2040, architects said, showing off solar paneled roofing and the use of recycled materials at other schools.

Like he did at West, Schulte emphasized that the district is not considering building the school at a new site.

One parent raised a concern about the “traffic nightmare’ that surrounds the school during pick-up times. Schulte, who worked as a principal at Highland for many years, laughed knowingly at the question.

“It will get worse before it gets better,” Schulte said. He indicated that other schools, including Hillcrest High School in Midvale, have worked with the Utah Department of Transportation to revamp entrances. Still, a change would be “a big lift,” Schulte said.

In one example of a patchwork fix, the school has added a steep ramp outside its auditorium with a bump midway to slow down wheelchair users. While the ramp isn’t compliant with modern requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s allowed under the law due to the age of the school.

West and Highland high school can only be rebuilt if the school board asks residents to approve a bond in November 2023 — which would the first time the district has asked for a bond since 1999, when voters supported a $136 million spending proposal for renovating, rebuilding and building elementary and middle schools.

If the bond passes, Schulte estimated it would take about a year to finalize plans for the rebuild. Groundbreaking would likely be around the start of 2025, though Wentworth noted some parts of the project, like building portable classrooms, could start earlier.

One attendee asked why it will take so long to vote on the bond. No one really knows how much it will cost to rebuild at this time, Kearsley said, so the district can’t ask for an exact amount of money from voters. The district wants to avoid having to ask for a second bond because their initial ask didn’t cover the full expenses of the rebuild, Schulte noted.

The district paid NWLA $450,000 to conduct the feasibility study. Thursday’s meeting was the first of a series of public information sessions to be held over the coming months. Listening sessions will be livestreamed and translated into Spanish. Board members Kristi Swett and Nate Salazar attended the event but did not speak.

Schulte, with the architects, took questions and feedback from audience members and said they will continue to respond to questions online. NWLA has also created an online survey to take comments and questions from the community.

Highland, like West, was retrofitted to be safe during an earthquake during the first wave of a decades-long effort to update all district schools, which began in 1992. The school currently has an enrollment of around 1,915 students, the district said in its bid packet for the project. It wants a building that can accommodate up to 2,200 students.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.