Utah lawmakers suggest changing school closure law during tense Alpine District testimony

Alpine School District leaders attend this time, after skipping the last meeting and being subpoenaed.

During a tense meeting Monday, Utah lawmakers interrogated Alpine School District leaders over how they communicated with parents about potential school closures — and suggested changes to the statute that governs the process.

The discussion comes just weeks after the state’s Administrative Rules committee subpoenaed Alpine School District leaders Superintendent Shane Farnsworth and school board President Sara Hacken for not showing up at its previous meeting. This time, Hacken attended alongside school board Vice President Julie King and Kraig Brinkerhoff, the district’s executive director of legal services.

“The purpose of today’s meeting as relates to Alpine School District is to determine whether or not we need to amend the relevant statute regarding school closures,” said Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, who is also the co-chair of the committee. “In our last meeting, we did not get a clear response on how the statue was complied with, what the timing on the compliance was in terms of when was notification given.”

In April, Alpine School District’s school closure process came under scrutiny after a group of 33 parents sued the district, arguing it did not follow state law for getting public input. The district is potentially closing Sharon and Valley View elementaries, effective in the 2023-24 school year.

Farnsworth did not attend Monday’s committee meeting due to travel, but prepared a statement that Hacken read to members. Farnsworth wrote that “no request was made via email, text, letter or telephone call for the superintendent or board members to attend the scheduled committee meeting” in May.

Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, said that response was “a bit of a frustration,” adding that he personally spoke to Farnsworth at an event prior to last month’s meeting about having him and other board members there.

“That’s water under the bridge,” Bramble said. “Consider the subpoena a formal invitation.”

Committee members rebuked the district leaders at times Monday for interrupting lawmakers’ statements and attempting to speak without being acknowledged by the committee chair.

The lawmakers also discussed setting a statewide deadline for completing the school process each year, and opened a bill file for possible new legislation.

Committee members ask for clarification

Prior to May 3, state law required districts to give parents and students of schools targeted for closure at least 120 days’ notice prior to officially approving or implementing plans to change attendance boundaries or close. That requirement has since been changed to 90 days, with the passage of SB143 in the 2023 legislative session.

During the meeting, multiple committee members tried to get clarification on when exactly the 120 days began for the district to begin the process of closing its initial list of targeted schools, which were Sharon, Windsor, Valley View, Lindon and Lehi elementary schools.

Brinkerhoff reiterated to the committee that on Feb. 28, the board voted to move forward with a formal study that included a proposed closure, merger or boundary change of those schools. And on March 1, an email was sent to parents to officially inform them of the study, beginning the 120 days’ notice.

After several open houses, the board 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.

Farnsworth’s statement said that the board is anticipated to make a “final determination” on the school closures on June 30, though action is still “potential.”

Sen. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, questioned the wording of the Feb. 28 motion by the school board, saying that it did not mention a study — and instead said the district would “begin the formal process of closing” the elementary schools.

“It actually says, ‘the process of closing,’” Brammer said. “That would be fine if everybody understood it and understood what you meant, as opposed to what you said.”

He also noted that after the Feb. 28 vote, teachers from those schools were reassigned within the district, citing a district spreadsheet showing that there were no teachers at Valley View and Sharon slated to teach next year.

Brinkerhoff responded by reiterating what Farnsworth said in his statement — that it’s “much easier to be prepared and reverse track than it is to try and make adjustments on the fly.”

Committee looks at potential changes to statute

Brammer said the Alpine School District has put itself “in a little bit of a conundrum” with the timing of reassigning teachers ahead of a school closure vote.

“If you wanted to close within the certain time periods, you’re basically in this scenario where you feel like, ‘Well, we can’t close then shift all these people around, but we can’t plan to close and then not move these people around before we actually vote to close,’” he said.

Brammer suggested a change to the statute — proposing having Oct. 31 be a statewide deadline for districts to complete the process of a closure and have the vote to close a school. That school would then close the next academic year, he said.

King suggested possibly moving that date even further back, to Jan. 31, since the later date may conflict with when charters conduct their lottery draws for admissions.

“October is tough because if you back up 120 days, we’re starting that process in July,” King said. “And if we want to be transparent with parents, who’s checking their email in July?”

Whatever date is set doesn’t really matter that much, said Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi. He said what is most important is creating a timeline that would give parents enough time to make an informed decision, such as if they need to move.

“I will stand by what I said in the last meeting, which is the school board needs to be able to open and shut schools,” Anderegg said.

He added that even if there was a decision to change the law now, it would not go into effect until potentially May of next year, as it would need to go through and be approved by the House, Senate and the governor.

“That’s part of the reason why you’re here answering questions is, how do we better navigate for parents to be able to have as much time as possible to make decisions?” Anderegg said to the Alpine School District leaders, asking when they would recommend dates to be set for an appropriate timeline.

King said she would be happy to bring it back to the board members to discuss and later share their recommendation with the committee.

She added that closing schools is “the most emotionally charged thing” a district has to do, and that no one is happy about boundary changes, much less school closures.

“We have involved parents who love their schools, are committed to their communities, and we have phenomenal schools. And everyone’s saying, ‘Please keep us open, please stay open, we love our schools so much,’” King said. “That is a phenomenal problem to have, because if we had the reverse problem where people were saying, ‘That school is the worst, it’s about time,’ that would be a different dynamic.”