Without in-public input on candidates, Salt Lake City school board hires new superintendent

In a break from past transparency, school board members interviewed candidates in private and did not invite the public to meet them.

(Salt Lake City School District) Elizabeth Grant is announced as the new Salt Lake City School District superintendent at a Salt Lake City board meeting on Thursday, May 4, 2023.

Unlike its transparency in the three previous superintendent searches, the Salt Lake City school board announced Elizabeth Grant as its next superintendent without disclosing or allowing the public to meet with the strongest candidates.

Grant, a graduate of Salt Lake City schools, previously served in the district as the principal of Lowell Elementary — which closed in 2004 — and assistant principal at Edison Elementary. She has most recently been an associate professor of education in the Graduate School of Education at George Washington University.

In her remarks during a short board meeting Thursday when her selection was announced, she called the district a “gem” and said she is excited to return.

The district did not immediately release Grant’s contract; The Salt Lake Tribune has filed a public records request for it. The district also did not immediately disclose what it has set for Grant’s annual salary. Her predecessor was being paid $220,000.

Salt Lake City School District’s two previous superintendents each resigned amid controversy with the board — Timothy Gadson III in October and Lexi Cunningham in 2020. Both Cunningham and Gadson were initially announced as finalists before they were named superintendent. In both of those searches, parents and others were invited to meet three finalists at community forums, and school board members conducted interviews in public.

Cunningham’s predecessor, McKell Withers, also was initially announced as one of three finalists.

In contrast, Grant’s candidacy was kept secret from the general public, with her name revealed at the board meeting moments before she signed a contract to begin July 1. Grant was selected after private feedback from a stakeholder committee of more than 40 people, including students, parents, district employees and community leaders, according to the district.

In a statement Friday, the district pointed out that community members had the opportunity to provide feedback about “what kind of leader” they wanted, before the school board created the application packet for the job. A public survey was open from Jan. 20 to Feb. 7.

“Throughout the process, the Board of Education was fully compliant with the public transparency requirements in state law surrounding the appointment of a new superintendent; a process similar to what was implemented to appoint the superintendents of Provo and Cache County School Districts earlier this week,” the statement said.

An update posted on the Salt Lake City district’s website on April 13 said the new superintendent job listing had closed in March, after drawing “16 highly qualified candidates.” That was the last information shared there as of Thursday afternoon.

KUTV-Ch. 2 reported that the board interviewed as many as eight candidates for the position.

On Thursday, Salt Lake City Board of Education President Nate Salazar said the board chose Grant due to her “depth of knowledge, the breadth of her experience and her demonstrated leadership at multiple levels.” But most important, Salazar said, the board was impressed by her experience with the district.

“She has the knowledge of best practices in school districts across the country, but she also knows who we are in Salt Lake City because she is one of us,” Salazar said.

Grant expressed her excitement to return to Salt Lake City schools, saying she is “completely invested in the success of Salt Lake City’s children and youth.” She proudly mentioned being an alumnus of Rosslyn Heights Elementary, Wasatch Elementary, Bryant Junior High and East High.

As superintendent, she said her focus will be to give “truly relentless” attention to the everyday work being done in classrooms and schools.

“We can provide excellence and equity to every student,” Grant said.

Grant will be the Salt Lake City School District’s fifth superintendent in just three years, counting interim leaders. She inherits a district that is facing likely boundary changes and school closures, with its elementary enrollment steadily dropping. State auditors have sharply criticized the board’s response to that trend as too slow, unnecessarily costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The district is also weighing whether to rebuild two aging high schools, along with community calls to build a new high school on the west side of the city.

Statement from Salt Lake City School District

The process the Board utilized involved the public differently than in previous searches. Public input was critical to shaping the requirements that were listed in the job description and factored heavily in the Board’s ultimate decision. District parents, employees, students, and Salt Lake City community members had the opportunity to provide feedback to the Board via a public survey that was open from January 20 to February 7, 2023. Throughout the process, the Board of Education was fully compliant with the public transparency requirements in state law surrounding the appointment of a new superintendent; a process similar to what was implemented to appoint the superintendents of Provo and Cache County School Districts earlier this week.

The school board and district dealt last year with months of controversy over Gadson’s job performance, including complaints that he allegedly created a toxic environment within the district. Defenders of Gadson, the district’s first Black superintendent, accused board members of discrimination.

The board accepted Gadson’s resignation a little more than a year after he started, emphasizing in a statement that there was “no finding of any wrongdoing on the part of Dr. Gadson and no violation of law by either Dr. Gadson or the Salt Lake City School Board.”

Gadson had succeeded Cunningham, who was allegedly forced out of her post in a dispute with the board. One board member who defended her said she would have been fired if she didn’t step down.

A revolving leadership door at Salt Lake City schools

When Elizabeth Grant starts as the new leader of the Salt Lake City School District, she will be its fifth superintendent in three years.

• 2016 to June 2020: Lexi Cunningham

• July 2020 to June 2021: Larry Madden, interim

• July 2021 to October 2022: Timothy Gadson

• October 2022 to June: Martin Bates, interim

• July 1: Grant is scheduled to begin.