Facing eviction from aging Salt Lake City elementary, performing arts school may move downtown

Yet to be resolved: Where will arts charter high school students take their core classes?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, left in this composite photograph, and the Oquirrh School Building, right, on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

As Salt Lake City school board members figure out how to deal with emptying elementary schools, district leaders have decided to stop expensive repairs and upkeep at one aging east side campus.

And that means evicting the niche charter high school that has been leasing the space. Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, nicknamed SPA, has been operating in the former Rosslyn Heights Elementary, which closed in the early 2000s.

Now SPA is negotiating a move into the historic Oquirrh School downtown — causing concern among parents who worry that it is too far from Highland High School, where SPA students take core classes.

The district-sponsored, public charter school has been open since 2006 and offers various arts tracks for students, including theater, performance design and tech, and media arts.

SPA’s lease was not renewed because district leaders felt the former Rosslyn Heights building had “reached the end of its life,” said Salt Lake City School District spokesperson Yándary Chatwin.

Major issues with the building include one of two boilers being “completely dead” and outdated plumbing, she said. Chatwin added there is a safe, but “very dated” electrical system. “The building’s just in poor condition, and it’s not something that we thought was in good enough shape to renew the lease for the school,” she said.

SPA board president Doug Keefe said SPA is currently negotiating a deal to occupy the Oquirrh School building at 350 S. 400 East — which was created by the same architect who designed the Utah Capitol, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The 1894 building was extensively renovated by The Children’s Center Utah, which moved there in 2009. Last year, the nonprofit therapy center sold the school and bought a site in West Valley City, according to its most recent financial statement. Keefe said the center is moving out of the space in July.

“It fits most of our needs,” Keefe said. “It doesn’t fit everything because it doesn’t have all the big venue-type stuff, but it used to be a school so it’s got a lot of bones. It’s a lot of space.”

SPA could add some small performing arts spaces, Keefe said, while potentially partnering with local venues for bigger performances.

The lease at Rosslyn Heights is set to expire on June 30, Keefe said, though he added the district could allow SPA more time if needed.

A rocky search for a new home

Keefe said SPA was notified last summer by the district that it would only be getting a one-year extension on the lease.

While SPA did explore options for potentially replacing the boiler as well as covering other maintenance needs, he said, “it would have cost us a lot of money.” In that scenario, he added, it is likely SPA would have similar maintenance problems in the next year.

“The building is basically falling apart,” Keefe said. “We’ve been band-aiding it between the two of us; [the district] has taken more of the brunt of the band-aiding.”

In a January letter to Keefe and then-principal Lucas Charon, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune though an open records request, the district officially notified SPA that it would no longer be continuing the lease and that the charter should look for another facility.

“While the District has maintained the systems and structural integrity of the Premises, at this point the District has determined that it is no longer fiscally responsible or efficient to perform the necessary repairs to the building once the current school year has concluded,” district business administrator Alan Kearsley wrote in the letter.

“I recognize that SPA was hoping for another year at its current location and that this decision is not welcome news. Please know that this was not a decision the District made lightly.”

The performing arts school had originally announced to community members in March that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Westminster College to house SPA students on the campus of the private, liberal arts college.

However, the deal fell through after both schools decided that it would be too logistically difficult to house the 200-plus students that attend SPA.

“The move would have also resulted in a restriction of space that may have adversely impacted the quality of our programs, ultimately limiting the potential for future growth of SPA programs and enrollment,” SPA’s board of trustees wrote in a letter to community members. A Westminster College spokesperson confirmed to The Tribune that the plan fell through due to these logistical reasons.

In the midst of the process, Charon resigned from his position, with assistant principal Angela Pontious taking over as SPA’s interim leader. Charon declined to comment on the reasons behind his resignation.

SPA trustees announced to parents at a meeting weeks later that they had been working on the potential deal at the Oquirrh School.

Concerns about the new location

Parents like Lisa McBride are concerned about how the potential new location will affect students.

“It was interesting to me that this hadn’t been brought to parent’s attention until [March] when it was sprung on all of us that an agreement had been reached with Westminster. We’re all feeling blindsided,” said McBride, whose daughter is a freshman at SPA. “The part that’s upsetting to me is that the district doesn’t have any plans for the [Rosslyn Heights] building.”

McBride said she was told by the district’s interim superintendent that the building would be torn down and the site would be turned into a park. But according to Chatwin, the district does not currently have definitive plans for the building.

The district’s options include creating green space, selling the land, or even knocking down and rebuilding the building, Chatwin said.

“The district is currently in the middle of a boundary and population study where we’re looking at our elementary schools for possible closure for some of them or possible boundary realignment,” Chatwin said, “so [rebuilding] is a lot less likely given that the state of the district right now is to look for places to trim things down.”

Current students split time between SPA and core classes at Highland High School, as agreed in the performing arts school’s charter with the district, Keefe said.

McBride said she is concerned about the distance between the Oquirrh School and Highland, as well as whether the district could decide to not continue the relationship between SPA and Highland. She said her hope would have been for SPA to stay in the same building, to buy more time to find a new location closer to Highland.

“All these kids have integrated into Highland High … and with the things that were proposed, that will be severely disrupted because the only building they could find at this last minute is all the way downtown,” McBride said.

Keefe said he recognized the distance between Highland and the new location — around a 15- to 20-minute commute — and said trustees could explore working with other schools within the district.

SPA discussed partnering with Innovations Early College High School, located next to Salt Lake Community College’s south city campus, Keefe said. “They couldn’t fit our 200-plus kids, so we stopped [discussions].”

Keefe said SPA could choose to hold core classes in its new space. The school is still debating, he added, whether to keep its relationship with Highland or propose to amend the charter with the district.

McBride said she feels the current location is a great fit — with dance studios that have appropriate flooring, a black box theater and a performance space for larger shows. But she mostly is concerned about finding a solution for getting students easy access to core classes.

“I want to stay with SPA, my daughter wants to stay with them,” McBride said. “My hope is that they can nail that down, whether that be with another high school, East or West, but all of those where this [Oquirrh] building exists, none of them have a commute that’s quick enough.”