Utah — long known for being a state with lots of children — isn’t growing at the same rate it once was.
Public K-12 schools statewide gained only 299 students this year, the smallest increase ever reported, according to numbers released this month from the Utah State Board of Education. Typically, an additional 7,000 kids, at least, enroll annually in Utah schools.
In the Granite District, where the population has been aging, almost every elementary school has seen its population steadily decline. But it’s been the fastest at Twin Peaks, Spring Lane and Millcreek elementaries — with all three now expected to be closed.
Nearly every parent who went up to a podium to speak about that plan last week was angry, frustrated and disappointed.
Many noted that the selected schools are among the most diverse in the Salt Lake Valley. Twin Peaks Elementary, in particular, has a student body that is 43% Latino. And students of color at Spring Lane Elementary make up 40% of the classes.
Others said they were concerned that three schools looked at for closure have some of the highest percentages of students who are economically disadvantaged, served by nearby homeless and domestic violence shelters. At Millcreek Elementary, 60% of the kids are from low-income households.
Armed with those statistics, the moms and dads at the heated school board meeting said the decisions on closures feel targeted.
“Emotions have clearly flared,” said April Flores, the PTA president at Millcreek Elementary. “Tears are still being shed.”
Flores said, like others, she is unhappy with how the process to select which schools to close has gone, saying it has been unfair and harmful to already vulnerable communities. And she feels concerns were not listened to by members of the school board before moving forward.
Looking back at her were the seven elected officials representing Granite School District, all of whom are white.
“Representation matters,” Flores told them. “It matters in the classrooms. And it matters at the administrative level.”
But after more than an hour of public comments from individuals railing the list of schools, the Granite school board members said their hands were tied. They voted unanimously on an initial decision to shutter those three schools; they will make the final call next month.
After years of dropping enrollment across the district, Steve Hogan, the director of planning and boundaries for Granite, said district leaders have to act. “It’s very, very tough,” he added. “But this is not really a surprise.”
The problem isn’t unique to Granite. Salt Lake City School District has faced similar drops in enrollment, but its school board members have postponed any closure discussions to next year.
Granite District previously voted to close Westbrook Elementary and Carl Sandburg Elementary School, as well as Oquirrh Hills Elementary in 2019. And Granite High was shuttered years earlier, in 2009.
A look at the numbers
Granite School District, overall, lost 1,255 kids this fall across all grades. Covering mostly the northwest side of Salt Lake County, it is the third largest district in the state with 59,121 students.
Jordan School District, at the southwest end of the county, this fall reported 57,829 kids; down just 11 students from last year and with a generally steadier population.
In addition to a maturing population, Granite District has seen more students transferring to charter schools. One nearby charter in West Valley City, Hogan said, has 600 students; about 500 of those used to attend Granite schools.
Students who left for home-schooling or private school during the COVID-19 pandemic also largely have not returned, Hogan said. And the economy and real estate issues — particularly the lack of affordable housing — have compounded the problem in Granite and elsewhere in the county.
The issues have particularly impacted elementary schools, while high schools populations have largely stayed the same.
Now, Granite is operating too many schools with too few students, and the costs for utilities and busing for emptying buildings is too high.
So Hogan and Granite spokesperson Ben Horsley spent the last year leading a study within the district of which elementaries to close in the network of nine along the corridor surrounding the Van Winkle Expressway and 700 East, where the decline has been the sharpest.
Twin Peaks (in Murray) and Spring Lane (in Holladay) elementaries rose to the top on the list to close, Hogan said. Twin Peaks has 240 students this fall; Spring Lane has 280 students.
Both have a capacity for around 600 students. In all three of the recommended plans for closures, both of those schools were included.
Closing a total of three schools allows the district to shift students and boundaries to have about 550 kids, on average, in the remaining elementaries in the area. That’s the ideal number, as far as class sizes and school building capacity for the district, Horsley said. And teachers will be moved with the students; so far, there have been no plans to reduce staffing.
Hogan told the school board that as a third option, closing Millcreek Elementary (in the town boundaries of Millcreek), which had 305 students, along with the other two, was “the most balanced option.”
Accusations of targeting
Parent Alisa Kesler-Lund, who has a student at Oakwood Elementary, objected that under the board’s plan, “you are forcing and busing kids out of their neighborhoods and communities.”
Most students now attending Spring Lane would be moved to Oakwood; the Chinese dual-immersion program currently operated at Spring Lane would continue at Oakwood.
Kesler-Lund said she feels the district has listened to the wealthiest parents by closing schools with high diversity and economic disparity numbers. She believes the district should have looked at keeping those students in their communities for stability and bused other students into those schools.
Several parents pointed out that the district has other schools with fewer students that they believe should have been looked at first — and those schools have more white and wealthier students. “What about Rosecrest?” a few shouted into the microphone.
Rosecrest Elementary has 295 students. Of those, 81% are white and 18% are economically disadvantaged. But it wasn’t part of the study area.
The parents said they feel Granite instead looked at closing schools in minority neighborhoods. At the other two schools also suggested for closure but not ultimately chosen — Moss and Lincoln — the numbers of minority students are even higher. Moss has 73% students of color; Lincoln has 79%.
The breakdown of those facing economic disparity in the three chosen and two considered schools are all at least double Rosecrest’s numbers.
Emanuel Vasquez, a data professional with two boys at Millcreek Elementary, said the dual immersion Spanish program there helped his kids learn the language that their grandparents from Guatemala speak and helped connect them with their culture and other students who share a similar background.
“That’s just not captured in your studies,” he told the school board. Hogan said the dual immersion program would be combined with the existing Spanish program at William Penn Elementary where Millcreek students who go with the closure.
Angie Gray, another parents with kids at Millcreek, said: “The diversity is beautiful.”
She noted that many families were celebrating Dia De Los Muertos, a Mexican holiday, last week when the board held the public hearing about the closures. She worries that kept more parents from speaking out, and she called it another decision made by failing to recognize the communities served in this area.
A promise to ‘figure this out’
A few parents, though, said the schools needed to be closed because currently their kids are not getting an equitable education due to too few resources.
Marianne Jensen, whose son attends Spring Lane Elementary, said after the school appeared on the district’s shortlist for closure, staff began leaving. A behavioral health aide and a special education assistant quit, she said.
Because of the shortages, Jensen has started to fill in recording attendance and working as a recess aide to help keep the school day going. “Students are being deprived this year,” she said. “We have kids who need help.”
She agrees the solution now is to move forward with closing the schools and consolidating support.
Lindsay Godsey, the PTA treasurer at Spring Lane, said she is “trying not to be offended” by the parents who went to the school board meeting to say they were worried their kids’ schools would become too crowded with the closures. She worries the kids from the closed schools won’t be wanted.
“But we need to work together and solve things,” she said.
Horsley said the district did specifically look at special student populations in its study — including students of color, those with special needs and those experiencing homelessness. He said there was no effort by the district to target any communities.
“We looked for the option that was the least impactful and caused the least amount of pain,” he said.
To help alleviate concerns, Horsley said, parents who have students in the closed schools will be able to get permits for their kids and any siblings to go where they feel is best for their child.
Horsley also said the district read through every email sent with comments on the plans and held 90 meetings where parents could provide feedback.
The district, he said, has never closed an elementary school with a dual-language immersion program before, and that’s been the cause of a lot of the heartburn. Some parents shouted over Horsley as he explained that both the immersion programs at Penn and Millcreek, which would be housed together after the closure, don’t individually have enough students enrolled.
The hope is that the consolidation can boost both, as well as the number of traditional English-only classes. The school board promised to look into the impacts of that more before taking its final vote next month.
“I do have some serious concerns,” said board member Nicole McDermott. “We’ve got to figure this out.”
Board member Julie Jackson said the vote wasn’t perfect and the board needs to understand it did not have “true two-way communication” in this process.
There will be a second public hearing on the closures on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Granite Education Center (2500 S. State).