These 7 Salt Lake City elementaries may be studied for potential closure

Members of the school board are slated to vote in August whether to formally begin the study.

More than six months after after a state audit criticized the Salt Lake City School District for keeping schools with declining enrollment open, school board members could be looking at seven elementary schools for potential closure.

The schools recommended to the board for additional study were Emerson, Hawthorne, M. Lynn Bennion, Mary W. Jackson, Newman, Riley and Wasatch elementary schools. All seven elementaries were on a study list of 14 schools proposed last year by Paul Schulte, the district’s now-retired executive director of Auxiliary Services.

Elizabeth Grant, who began work as the district’s new superintendent last week, said the process was “data-driven,” and that it was built on analyzing all 27 district elementary schools.

“What I think has happened here is a very solid and very careful review of our schools across the board,” Grant said. “It’s a tough process to engage in, but that we had so many people in conversation with each other making sure that they understood each school and the aspects of that school well enough to make this determination, is a good starting point for us to consider schools, going forward for closure.”

All of the schools were ranked by the district based on four criteria, according to district Boundaries and Planning Director Brian Conley.

The criteria were “safe,” such as whether there are safe walking routes for students; “reasonable,” which included student enrollment trends, number of classrooms, special programs and accessibility; “simple,” which included the proximity to other elementary schools and demographics; and “cost-effective,” which looked at facility conditions, utility and sustainability costs.

The seven schools at the bottom of the rankings had a “notable break” in their scores compared to the rest. The potential study comes after enrollment in the district has been declining for years; since 2014, the district has seen an almost 29% decrease in its student population, Conley said.

[Read more: As Salt Lake City booms, its schools are emptying]

In the last five academic years, the district has lost around 3,000 students, according to previous Tribune reporting. And the 27 elementaries included in its 39 schools all lost students. Fall enrollment numbers had the district at 19,447 students, almost 400 fewer students than the 2021-22 school year.

In 2019, a committee of district employees and parents had suggested the closure of M. Lynn Bennion Elementary, located near downtown at 429 S. 800 East. While school board members did not close Bennion then, its enrollment has continued to decline. It was on last year’s proposed study list and is on the new one.

Since March, the district’s Boundary Options Committee had been meeting with representatives from each school. This included over 600 people who attended School Community Council (SCC) meetings; 27 principals and SCC chairs; and feedback from over 500 families, employees and community members provided through an online form.

People said they recognized the need to consider closing schools and changing boundaries, but no one wanted their own schools to be studied for potential closure, Conley said.

“No one was jumping up and down saying, ‘This is a great idea, and yup, close our schools,’” he said, adding that he knows “it’s more than a building ... it’s more than that because of the people that are inside of it.”

“It’s more than that because where those great teachers are, wherever those students that are full of character and charisma, wherever they’re going to school, that’s going to be the community that they’re a part of.”

Grant said she was “struck” by how the community understood the logic behind the need to close schools, but didn’t want their schools closed.

She said that the process is about “creating a community in a geographic space,” and that she understood the angst and difficulty of it as she was principal of Lowell Elementary school when it closed in 2004.

“Our goal as we’re moving forward in this is to remind people about a broader community within the district,” Grant said. “This is our city, these are our schools, these are our children, and as a community we are building new associations, new relationships, new connections with each other as we build new schools, as we think about reconstituting some schools.”

The board is expected to vote in August whether to officially begin studying the seven schools for potential closure.

If the board votes to approve, the district will also begin studying the remaining 20 elementary schools for potential boundary changes. It will also hold neighborhood information sessions in the fall.