How soon will Salt Lake City close schools?

After years of declining enrollment, the district will begin the process to shutter schools. But it could take a year before decisions are made.

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For years, Salt Lake City’s school board has put off any decisions to deal with its declining enrollment. But following a critical state audit and mounting public pressure, it is now starting the process to choose which schools to close.

Board members dove in Tuesday night, learning about the process and outlining the months ahead. Here’s a breakdown of what’s to come.

What does enrollment look like in the district?

The trend of dropping students has been consecutive for the last eight years, though it started even before that in 2014.

The district has lost 13% of its enrollment, or about 3,000 kids, in just the last five years — the highest number of any district in Salt Lake County. Currently, it has 19,447 students, according to fall enrollment numbers, and operates 39 schools.

It has seen the sharpest declines in elementary schools, with all 27 of those in the district losing students. Since last fall, the elementary population dropped by another 214 kids.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In 2016, 80% of the space in elementary buildings was being utilized. This fall, only 57% is being used, according to a state audit.

At eight elementary schools in the district, enrollment is sitting below 50% capacity. The lowest is at Bennion Elementary, which the board initially looked to close in 2019 but then didn’t act on after parents raised concerns. It has 157 students and a capacity for 600.

The board will start its process to close schools with elementaries, said district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin. “The big changes are happening there right now,” she said.

What is the timeline for closures?

The process to close schools will take roughly another year.

The superintendent’s cabinet in the district has been studying the issue over the past few year, looking at the age of buildings, the demographics of students and the programs housed in each school.

In February, members will present to the board a study list of clusters of schools they want to look at further for possible closure. Chatwin said it will be a long list — but “it doesn’t mean a school is closing just because it’s on there.”

It’s a list to weigh what effects would happen at each school if it were to close. According to the state audit, the district needs to close at least six elementary schools, though, to get above 75% capacity at all of its elementary buildings. Currently, only three elementaries hit that mark.

Interim Superintendent Martin Bates said Tuesday that his goal would be for every elementary to have about 550 students, meaning about three classes for each grade. He called that the “right size” that allows for collaboration and programming without crowding.

Currently, the district is averaging 349 students per school.

From the initial list, the board can make changes before approving the committee to continue its research. Then:

• From March through May, the superintendent will assign staff to meet with representatives at each of the schools on the list — including the principal and school community councils — to discuss potential impacts.

• Around May or June, staff will come back to the school board with some initial recommendations and possible solutions. The board will need to approve further study at that time. It could also tell staff to start over. Staff will use the summer for further work.

• In August, the board will likely approve a list of recommended options. That would be something like three possible scenarios for closures, how that would impact bus schedules and high school feeder patterns. That list would then be published for the public to see.

• Following that in the fall, there will be several meetings where parents and members of the public can comment on the different proposed plans. Chatwin said there will also be places for people to submit comments online if they can’t make it to a meeting. And there will be translators available, too, for parents who might need that service.

• Probably in November, the superintendent will have looked through all of the feedback and will present an overview of it to the board. There will be two additional public hearings after that for continued input.

• In December, the board will host a meeting to discuss the options but not take action.

• At a second meeting in December or one in January 2024, the board could then decide to vote on what option for closure to move forward with.

When would the changes take effect?

Since it’s still early in the process — with any possible decisions on closure at least a year out — it’s hard to know exactly when schools would close. But the earliest would like be after the 2023-2024 school year.

That means by fall 2024, the district could potentially have fewer elementary schools in operation.

What about junior high and high schools?

The situation isn’t as dire at the district’s middle schools and high schools. But the process to look at possible closures there would follow the closure of elementary schools.

Meanwhile, some community members are pushing for a high school to be built on Salt Lake City’s west side. Currently, of the three high schools in the district, West High is the only one on the west side. But at 300 West, it’s closer to the east side than most of the families on the west side.

The school board approved Superintendent Bates to look at the possibility of a new high school more on the west side. But board President Nate Salazar cautioned that while the issue is important for equity, it’s unlikely they’d be building a new school while they’re looking at closures.

Community members, though, have suggested that instead of rebuilding West High at its current location — as the district plans to do — that a new school be built closer to them.

How will closures help with class sizes and costs?

It’s a misconception that a school with fewer students means smaller class sizes, Superintendent Bates said.

Often, schools with fewer students end up having more students per teacher. Reducing the number of schools, he hopes, will move students and teachers around more evenly.

Newly elected board member Ashley Anderson said kids and parents are noticing the huge class sizes at shrinking schools.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District Board of Education member Ashley Anderson speaks during a meeting of the board, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Closing schools also helps the district save money on utilities, with not having to keep heating and lighting nearly empty buildings.

One board member, Kristi Swett, urged the district to continue investing in small schools. She also feels the district hasn’t done enough to market itself and its programs and wondered if that has contributed to declining enrollment.

Anderson countered: “I don’t think we can market our way out of the demographic data that we have.”

The board agreed, though, for the superintendent to try to look into why families are leaving the district, along with the initial list of schools to look at for closure.

What did the state audit say about the district?

A critical audit released by the state last month said that by refusing to deal with declining student enrollment, Salt Lake City’s school board members have unnecessarily cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The board has raised money by increasing property taxes to prop up emptying schools that it has known for years should have been closed, the audit said.

If the district hadn’t approved those property tax hikes, the first for $7.5 million per year in 2016 and the most recent this year, for $1.5 million per year, taxpayers could’ve saved more than $40 million in the past six years, according to the audit.

The audit also expressed particular frustration over Salt Lake City rebuilding three elementary schools, starting in 2016 with Liberty Elementary, while enrollment was declining. The district then completed a new Meadowlark Elementary and Edison Elementary.

The district has said two of the buildings were not seismically safe. But the auditors suggest that should have been a reason to look at closing those buildings and moving students around more efficiently to deal with the declining enrollment.

Instead, the district spent a combined $68 million on the projects.

Superintendent Bates said Tuesday that the board’s action now is not in response to that audit and was already planned. “I’m not being defensive,” he said. “I’m just pointing that out.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Martin Bates speaks during a meeting of the board, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.