‘Cover-up’? Frustrated Utah lawmakers subpoena Alpine District leaders over school closure plans.

New legislation on school closures may follow, after Alpine superintendent and school board president fail to appear at committee meeting.

(Screengrab) Kraig Brinkerhoff, center, the Alpine School District's executive director of legal services, spoke to lawmakers on the Administrative Rules Review and General Oversight Committee on Thursday, May 18, 2023. At left is David Stephenson, executive director of external relations and communications and at right is Robert Smith, business administrator.

As concerned parents sue the Alpine School District over its plans to close schools, Utah lawmakers want to hear from the district’s superintendent and school board president.

But Superintendent Shane Farnsworth and school board President Sara Hacken sent others instead, and didn’t show up to a Thursday meeting of the Administrative Rules Review and General Oversight Committee. So the committee has subpoenaed them — a rare step that demands their appearance at the next meeting.

“Very seldom does the legislature exercise the power to compel testimony but it is clear that we have both prerogative and that responsibility,” said Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, who chairs the committee. “It is incumbent upon the committee to get information directly from the people responsible for the actions of the district.”

A group of 33 parents sued the district on April 28, contending it has failed to follow state law for getting public input on closure decisions.

The superintendent and board chair’s refusal to appear, predicted Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R- Lehi, will lead to new legislation about school closures — which multiple Utah school districts are grappling with as their enrollment drops.

“I personally believe that school district needs to be able to make tough decisions in order to meet the overall needs of the entire student population,” Anderegg said. “But the fact that they’re not in the room, answering these questions is going to lead to a series of legislation, several bills at least, that will correct this.”

State law, until this year, required 120 days’ notice prior to approving or implementing plans to close schools or change boundaries. SB143, passed in the 2023 legislative session, changed that requirement to 90 days.

The process in Alpine

In November, voters in the Alpine School District turned down a $600 million bond that would have funded the construction of new schools. The school board then voted to approve a study of changing the attendance boundaries for schools districtwide, to find an alternative solution for its failing buildings and declining enrollment.

On Dec. 8, they emailed parents and local officials about their intent to conduct the study. According to the parents’ lawsuit, the district has at times argued that communication started the clock on the 120-day notice.

But, the parents and their lawsuit point out, there was no mention of possible closures. The email read: “Study outcomes may result in boundary changes impacting some schools for the 2023 school year, while others may take effect in 2024 or at a later date. While the boundary changes may impact a few schools throughout the district, parents must be made aware that we are studying all enrollments and associated boundaries.”

On Feb. 28, the board voted to “formalize the study,” which entailed directing staff to begin the process of closing Sharon, Windsor, Valley View, Lindon, and Lehi elementary schools effective in the 2023-24 school year.

On March 1, the district sent an email notifying parents of the five proposed school closures and included a link to an online public input form and a schedule of public hearings.

After several open houses, the board then voted to remove three elementary schools from the study until 2024, but to “continue the process” of potentially closing Sharon and Valley View in 2023.

Lawmakers react

Lawmakers said it seemed like the board had made the decision before gathering public input.

“It appears from what has been presented, that a decision had been made and now the open houses and such were designed to inform the public of those decisions,” Bramble said.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, agreed, saying it felt like a “cover-up.”

But district officials said the board hasn’t yet voted on any school closures and an official vote will be taken in June. The district sent three representatives to the meeting: Kraig Brinkerhoff, its executive director of legal services, its executive director for communications and its business administrator. One board member, Joylin Lincoln, attended via Zoom.

“That’s one interpretation, that the decision had been previously made,” Brinkerhoff, the district’s attorney, said. “There are other interpretations that the decision has yet to be made.”

Sen. Brady Brammer, R- Pleasant Grove, said the timeline didn’t add up.

“You’ve kind of put yourself in the horns of dilemma,” Brammer said. “You either voted to close on the [Feb.] 28th and then took the actions to do so in violation of the statute even under your timeline of December 8, because that’s not 120 days, or you started the process and took all the actions to start closing the schools before a final vote to close the schools.”

Board member Lincoln said no decisions were made on Feb. 28.

“Our intent was always to be very transparent and inform the public throughout and as we’ve moved through the process and gathered more information to narrow our information,” Lincoln said. “(We are) trying to always bring information to the public as we get it.”

What’s next?

Bramble explained that the legislature has no punitive authority over school boards and districts, but its role in this matter is to ensure the state statute is sound and to make adjustments if any ambiguity exists.

“If we don’t figure out the process so that parents and families who have made critical life decisions on where their kids go to school have the time to adjust to that and have the ability to prepare themselves for it….we’re going to have this issue over and over and over again, coming up to the legislature,” Brammer said.

Bramble said that the superintendent and board chair’s input in June will allow the committee members to better determine if there are ambiguities within the law.

“What we do need to understand is, are there systemic problems with a statute that need to be looked at? For me, personally, I’m not persuaded that there are yet,” Bramble said.

The two district leaders may challenge the subpoena due to ongoing litigation. The district has not yet filed a response; the suit asks a judge to stop the district from approving the current proposed school closures and new boundaries until it restarts its process.

Alicia Alba, a parent who presented at Thursday’s meeting and one of the 33 plaintiffs in the lawsuit ,said she’s lost trust in the Alpine School District.

“They need to be held accountable,” Alba said. “Not only for the situations that we are facing right now with these five schools that are on the chopping block for possible closure, but also for all schools and all students in the future in our district and in other districts. This should not happen. This should not be the process. This should not be how they handle things. They need to follow the law.”