If the Alpine School District closes a school in Orem — as it is poised to do soon — state law requires it to offer the land to the city first if it decides to sell.
So, this month, City Council members rezoned all public school sites as “Public Facilities” zones. This requires potential buyers to get their redevelopment plans and new zoning approved by the Orem Planning Commission and City Council — a step that wasn’t mandatory for former school sites before now.
“There’s a public process now through City Council,” said Jason Bench, planning director for Orem. “Neighbors are notified, so it allows [for] an open forum.”
The move comes at a contentious time, as parents sue the Alpine School District over its plans to close Sharon Elementary School in Orem and Valley View Elementary in Pleasant Grove, alleging the district failed to follow state law governing school closings.
But tensions over school closures in Orem have been brewing since 2017, when the Alpine school board voted to merge Hillcrest and Scera Park elementaries into one. The decision led some city leaders to consider splitting from the district.
The choice went to voters this past November and 73% voted against the proposed split.
Orem resident Abe Sanderson, who spoke against the rezoning at a May 16 City Council meeting, said he believes the rezoning is an “indirect response” by city officials to the vote.
“It feels retaliatory,” Sanderson said. “It’s a potential for conflict with the Alpine School District.”
His sentiment was shared by Orem council member Tom Macdonald, who at the meeting said the city didn’t communicate its intentions with the Alpine School District in a timely manner.
Macdonald said his main concern was that the city sent out mailers notifying the public of their intentions to rezone prior to speaking with the Alpine School District.
“My caveat was I could support this if we could talk to Alpine School District before we sent [the mailers] out and we did not,” Macdonald said. “We talked to Alpine after it was already hot and in the box.”
Other council members clarified that discussions with Alpine School District occurred after the mailers had been sent but before they hit mailboxes.
Macdonald ultimately voted against the rezoning. The vote passed 6-1 in favor of the changes.
Council member Jeff Lambson said the decision had nothing to do with retaliation.
“There’s a concern from a lot of our citizens that this is a ‘gotcha’ move against Alpine School District and if that’s the case, shame on us,” Lambson said. “I don’t know what the future holds, and I think it’s wise to put aside property because they ain’t building more land in Orem.”
Alpine School District officials have not spoken during public meetings about the impact of the rezoning, and did not respond to a request for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.
City leaders purchased the site of the former Hillcrest Elementary to create Hillcrest Park. The site of the former Polaris High School was sold to Utah Valley University, and Alpine has retained the site of the former Geneva Elementary.
Alpine School District is currently exploring new school boundaries and potential school closures after a proposed $595 million bond failed to pass with voters. The funds would have gone toward building new schools and repairing old ones with significant seismic needs.
According to a recent study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 12 of Orem’s 18 schools are seismically challenged, meaning they are at greater risk of falling and injuring children in the event of an earthquake. Overall, the district has 30 schools with seismic safety issues.
The district will have to make some tough decisions going forward.
“The school district, obviously, they’re making decisions based on what they think their data, their trends, their projections show,” Orem City Attorney Steve Earl said. “I think the concern that we have and is that are they going to decide to sell off some of these properties that have historically been used for schools, to a developer. ... What that means is that that property is gone forever.”
However, city officials said at the May 16 meeting that Orem has a good working relationship with Alpine School District, and that Superintendent Shane Farnsworth has told them the district will continue interacting with the city on a case-by-case basis when it comes to school closings.