All 7 proposed Salt Lake City schools will be studied for potential closure

The remaining 20 elementary schools will be studied for potential boundary changes.

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Hundreds of Salt Lake City kids will now wait to see if their school could be shut down months from now, as school board members voted Tuesday to officially study seven elementaries for possible closure.

The seven — Emerson, Hawthorne, Bennion, Mary W. Jackson, Newman, Riley and Wasatch elementaries — had been proposed for closure studies by a Boundary Options Committee, which included 13 district employees. Dozens of supporters of Emerson and Wasatch elementaries urged board members to take those schools off the list at Tuesday’s meeting, but a majority of members of the board decided to keep every school on.

Board member Mohamed Baayd — who represents precinct 5, with three schools on the list — dissented during the vote. Board member Jenny Sika, who represents precinct 2, did not attend. Her precinct covers the neighborhoods that are the farthest west in the district, and no schools there were proposed for possible closure studies.

Board president Nate Salazar, who attended virtually due to illness, thanked those who came to the meeting to support schools, and said that engagement shows the “beauty” of the community.

“It’s really hard to see Bennion [Elementary] on the list as their representative … It’s my only elementary school. But I know that my duty is to all of you and to all our students,” he said. “If our goal is to make sure that we have viable options for all of our students not only to succeed but to be prepared for the world, I think we owe ourselves and our students the opportunity to study the schools more and further.”

The vote also means the district will begin studying the remaining 20 elementary schools for potential boundary changes, if any, if not all, of the seven schools were to close.

The official move to study the schools comes as the district has been seeking to right-size its elementary school populations and classes, as its overall student enrollment has significantly declined within the last decade. In December, state auditors criticized the district for keeping schools with low and dropping enrollment open.

[Read more: What put these 7 Salt Lake City schools on the radar for potential closure studies?]

All of the district’s 27 elementary schools underwent an initial assessment. The seven elementaries that now will be officially studied for closure were ranked the lowest by the district committee, under factors that included safe walking routes, the ages of the buildings and enrollment numbers.

What’s next for the seven schools?

The board’s vote signified the start of the district’s minimum 120-day notice period to parents and students that it may decide to close their school at the end of that time. State law currently sets that number to a minimum of 90 days, but the district has chosen to use 120 days.

Board vice president Bryce Williams emphasized that the vote Tuesday night does not mean that the schools will officially close. He said he will “hold the options committee accountable” as it receives the community’s feedback.

As the committee further studies the schools, the district plans to hold neighborhood information sessions — in the Glendale, Rose Park, downtown, Avenues and Sugar House neighborhoods — so it can gather community comments. The district plans to hold these sessions in September and October, followed by public hearings in the winter, with the official vote whether to close schools potentially happening in December or January.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen once December or January comes around, but I do trust in the process. I do trust in the policy,” Williams said.

Schools could be closed as early as fall 2024.

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents, students and other supporters stand in the lobby of Salt Lake City School District's temporary district office as they wait for the school board meeting to begin on Aug. 1, 2023.

‘I don’t believe the decision hasn’t been made’

Among the nine people who signed up to speak at the meeting was Alex Yeanoplos, whose son is going into the third grade at Emerson. His daughter attended grades K-6 at Wasatch.

Emerson, he said, is a school that he felt had enough data to prove it should not be on the list of seven schools. He pointed out that Emerson saw the second-lowest decline in enrollment for in-boundary students in the last seven years, and noted the school’s academic growth.

“Why did the committee give Emerson the fourth-lowest score out of all schools? Because the building is old?” he said. The school was originally built in 1978.

Others, like Wasatch parent and PTA president Debbie Hummel, said the elementary is a “sought-after” school that not only has high academic achievement, but has a “commitment to arts-based education.”

“Wasatch is the school most equipped to accept more students who live closer to downtown,” Hummel said, especially were Bennion Elementary, at 429 S. 800 East, to close. “We have a proven track record of serving unsheltered families, those who reside in nearby recovery program shelters, refugee families, and other English language learners.”

Like many of the other parents who showed up in support, Hummel said she also was confused as to why the school was on the list. She felt that data provided by the district — like high enrollment and accessibility, when via various means of transportation — showed that the school was worth keeping open.

The district has Wasatch listed as last rebuilt over 40 years ago, and not compatible with solar power.

“If it is about the building, we cannot go back in time and urge past school boards, and past superintendents, and past district employees to be more forward-thinking about which schools were updated,” Hummel said.

“It’s been a vibrant school this whole time, but I can urge to this board not to make a poor choice in closing a school that adds nothing but good to the reputation of Salt Lake City schools,” she said.

As some were leaving the building, they said they felt their efforts were in vain and that board members had already known how the night’s vote would go.

One of them was Yeanoplos, who said in an interview after the meeting that he’s also skeptical about whether the district has already made a decision about closing schools, despite the emphasis from board members that nothing has been resolved.

“We had legit data and presented that, and we showed up in full force from Emerson,” he said. “I don’t believe that the decision hasn’t been made.”

Despite the vote at the meeting, Yeanoplos said he and the rest of the school’s supporters will continue to try to prove to the district that Emerson should stay open.

“I’m just going to get data, and we’ve got to get more people involved,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”