These are the ‘concerning findings’ state auditors reported about Salt Lake City School District

A report released last week highlighted several issues, from declining student enrollment to poor test scores.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents walk their Escalante Elementary students to class in Salt Lake City on January, 25, 2021. The district's school board came under fire by state auditors with the release of an audit on Dec. 13, 2022. The report said the board hasn't properly closed schools when needed and has failed to help students improve their standardized test scores.

State leaders reacted with concern and reproach last week to an audit of the Salt Lake City School District that detailed the failure of school board members to address ongoing problems with declining enrollment and dropping test scores.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said he continually hears complaints about the district, even though he lives in Davis County, and that prompted lawmakers to call for the review. “This is not a good audit,” he said during a committee hearing on the findings Tuesday.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, added there were “some concerning findings.” And Senate President Stuart Adams urged the school board: “You can do better.”

Here is a breakdown of the three major issues that auditors highlighted.

1. Not closing schools as enrollment declines have led to relying on taxpayers to cover the cost.

The top concern was that Salt Lake City’s school board has done nothing to address the long-declining student population in the district.

For eight consecutive years, enrollment has dropped in the capital city’s schools. For the last five years, it has been a decrease of 13%, or about 3,000 students, down to the current total of 19,447 students. High housing prices, new charter schools and a declining birthrate have all contributed to the problem.

And it’s been felt the most at elementary schools.

[Read more: Millions wasted as Salt Lake City school board fails to close elementaries]

Despite discussions in 2019 about closing Bennion Elementary, which is currently at the lowest capacity of any of the schools in the districts at 25%, the board voted to delay closing.

The board agreed again to put off action this year after hiring consultants to study the declining enrollment. Members pushed a decision off until February of next year.

The auditors say that just to hit 75% of building utilization, the district would need to close six elementary schools. Every year it fails to do that, it spends an unnecessary $3.6 million.

But the audit also says instead of addressing the issue, the board has gone forward with rebuilding three elementary schools and is now looking at rebuilding two high schools.

To cover the deficits and to prop open schools that should be shuttered, according to the audit, the board has relied on taxpayers. It has approved two hikes to property taxes since 2016 — collecting about $40 million from Salt Lake City homeowners, despite knowing the data showed dropping enrollment.

The audit says those hikes would not have been needed “had the district adjusted its number of elementary schools in a timely manner and chosen not to rebuild.”

Much of the money, too, is going toward utility costs for emptying schools and administrator salaries. The audit also says the district is overstaffed in higher-level positions.

The board responded to the audit with a letter saying it will now annually look at possible school closures.

2. The board’s dysfunction is getting in the way.

The audit devotes a chapter to concerns about school board members not getting along with each other, sometimes acting unethically and interfering in the day-to-day operations of the school district.

The auditors start by discussing concerns with the superintendent. The board hired Timothy Gadson in February 2021. Members then put him on leave before approving a separation agreement for him to leave in October of this year after about 15 months on the job.

There were accusations by board members that Gadson had taken an inappropriate trip to Grand Canyon University in Arizona and concerns about several of his hires. But others have said he was pushed out because of inherent racism; he was the first Black superintendent of the district.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson III is pictured on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Before that, the district’s board pushed out its previous superintendent, Lexi Cunningham. One board member said that was because she refused the board’s request to fire several principals, including one who later got a one-year teaching suspension for driving students home when he found them drunk on campus.

The audit notes: “By the time the district appoints a new superintendent in late 2022 or early 2023, the district will have had five superintendents in less than three years.” That includes two interim superintendents, including current leader Martin Bates.

In addition to those troubles, the audit mentions board members texting each other profanities. One previous board member was also arrested and pleaded guilty to downloading and producing child pornography.

State auditors say board members have also been micromanaging the district’s functions outside of their roles.

The auditors conclude: “These concerns were sufficiently widespread in the district to indicate that, beyond the specific allegations in this section, the district has a problem with how the SLCSD board is perceived and the culture that perception has created.”

They recommend that board members be trained semiannually on their policies to act ethically and support the superintendent instead of undermining the position.

3. The board isn’t focusing on how to improve dropping test scores.

The audit also says the district has fallen short on student test scores, which declined significantly in 2021 with the pandemic compared to 2019.

While all schools saw dips, the district dropped the lowest of any in its peer group in the state in math at minus 26%, and science at minus 12.8%, for standardized exams. The next lowest school district dropped 17% in math, leaving Salt Lake City nearly 10 percentage points behind that.

A “majority of the district’s schools have not recovered to pre-pandemic proficiency levels,” the audit states. That is especially the case at low-income and more diverse schools.

The auditors believe that may have been due to extended online learning in the district, when the school board voted to keep students learning virtually in fall 2020 with the rising COVID levels. “Generally, achievement levels of minority populations and schools with high levels of poverty appear to have suffered more through remote learning,” the audit states.

The school district wrote in its response that the audit should have included a better look at growth scores, which track how well students improve year to year. Those did improve in the district.

But the auditors note that one school in the district should be a model going forward. Parkview Elementary, which has a diverse student body and is a low-income Title I school, saw major success in its proficiency levels on year-end exams. The audit credits collaboration at that school that does not exist districtwide.