‘The west side is going to put up a fight,’ residents say, as Salt Lake City elementary schools may close

West-side residents feel frustrated about not being able to attend board meetings, and some feel officials don’t listen to them.

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kalo Hokafonu and her daughter Magnolia at their Poplar Grove home on Aug. 10, 2023.

Tucked along a cul-de-sac in Poplar Grove is a two-story, half-brick house that’s been in Kalo Hokafonu’s family for 30 years. For now, it sits in the boundaries of Riley Elementary School, where her daughter Magnolia attended pre-kindergarten last school year.

But when the Salt Lake City School District announced in February that it would be studying all 27 elementary schools for potential closure and boundary changes, Hokafonu had a feeling Riley might end up under the magnifying glass.

So she decided to act in advance. She looked at performance ratings, resources and the chances of finding a stable school community. All arrows pointed to the east side, leading her to enroll the 5-year-old at Ensign Elementary for kindergarten this fall.

“My mom has always said that the west-side schools, they’re either failing so the kids move or they decide to close it,” she said. “And it’s always in our area.”

And sure enough, Riley ended up on a list of seven elementary schools that the district decided earlier this month to study for potential closure. The other schools slated for study are Mary W. Jackson, Emerson, Wasatch, Hawthorne, Bennion and Newman.

Many parents and community members showed up at a recent school board meeting in attempts to get their schools off the list. But most who have publicly spoken out against the board’s decision have been supporters of schools on the city’s east side — like Emerson and Wasatch.

“I think more well-resourced neighborhoods and schools are inherently going to have a little bit of an advantage in this process,” said Glendale Neighborhood Council Chair Turner Bitton.

‘A huge level of exhaustion’

The sense that Bitton gets from his neighbors is that there is a “huge amount of fatigue” with government processes, he said, and that they feel they’re “not being listened to” by both city and school district elected officials.

“In city processes, in district processes, there’s almost some hopelessness that when we do speak out, we rally, we organize, things like the [Interstate]-15 expansion still happen, things like the inland port still happen,” he said. “There’s just a huge level of exhaustion.”

The change in schools for her daughter was not the only thing Hokafonu found disheartening. It was also frustrating not being able to attend and speak up about her community needs at the district board meetings, she said.

Hokafonu is a truck driver for a mailing company and is often on call when the public meetings happen. Many of her neighbors face the same challenge, as they juggle multiple jobs and housework. Some are also part of marginalized communities and are unsure whether the district would take their concerns into consideration, she said. There are also language barriers and a lack of child care access.

“I don’t know if [parents] don’t go because they just don’t understand they can voice their opinion, but they kind of just stay away,” Hokafonu said. “They don’t know what to do.”

However, if one of them can attend, they spread the word and share the frustration that west-side kids may not be able to know each other and grow up together.

“It feels like they’re taking things away without giving us something back and it’s a loss,” she said. “How much more change can we get?”

One thing that board members can do is go in person to the west side, and “really try to listen to what the community wants,” said Salt Lake City Council member Alejandro Puy. Puy represents District 2, which covers the Glendale, Poplar Grove and Fairpark neighborhoods.

“I don’t know if they want to really do that,” he said.

Currently, the school district plans to hold neighborhood information sessions in the areas that schools are being studied for potential closure. This includes Glendale, Rose Park, the Avenues, downtown and Sugar House.

At those meetings, Puy wants to encourage west-side residents to speak their mind to board members, and said that the board should create an environment “where people feel comfortable saying whatever they want.” And that could include residents telling the board, “you s--k,” he said.

“Certainly, I’ve been on the receiving end of comments like that,” Puy said, adding that “the magic of democracy is that people feel free to say that in whatever language and whatever form they want to, as long as we keep some sort of environment that doesn’t hurt other people to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.”

In a statement, the district said it will continue to listen to “all parent voices in discussions about school closure,” and reiterated that parents can use its online feedback form that is shared with board members.

“As parents share support for their local school or concerns about it closing, we are applying their cares and concerns, as applicable, to all schools on the list for further study,” the statement said. “In this way we balance the feedback we are receiving to apply to all schools, even those where parents have not been able to voice their concerns at Board meetings.”

The statement added: “We are carefully considering each school and listening to each community as we continue to follow the policy on boundary adjustment and school closure.”

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kalo Hokafonu (right) and her daughter Magnolia (left) at their Poplar Grove home on Aug. 10, 2023.

Future of the neighborhood and school

Families on the west side are aging in place, demographers have reported, and that’s something Hokafonu has seen at least in her neighborhood: there are fewer kids around for her daughter to befriend.

“To get her more active, there’s more stuff located [on the east side] of Salt Lake ... like her after-school programs,” she said, mentioning her daughter’s gymnastics and ballet classes. “She has the opportunity to be around more kids her age.”

Another reason she decided against enrolling her daughter at other west side schools was the fear of overcrowding, she said, and that the potential closure of Riley may feed into that issue.

She also worries about what a newly empty building could mean for the neighborhood.

“It’s a huge property, what are we going to do with it? Do the homeless take over?” she said. “It’s another closed building and nobody’s occupying it, so it’s kind of like, what a waste if they do close that building. It’s a beautiful building.”

If the district were to close Riley, Hokafonu would like to see the school’s site turn into a community space, or restaurants that reflect the west side’s rich cultural diversity.

Bitton suggests using the property for a potential west side high school, a grocery store or affordable housing.

“If the school district puts its land up for sale, they have to offer the land to the city first,” Bitton said, adding that he “can see the potential for a partnership that could result in solving some of the underlying issues that have resulted in schools having to be closed in the first place.”

The district continued to emphasize that no decisions have been made to close schools and that there have been no discussions about what will happen to the buildings if schools are closed.

“Once a decision has been made to permanently close a school building, the board will examine various options for ensuring that the land and/or building remain an asset to the community and do not become a blighting incident or safety hazard,” the district’s statement said.

Despite some already thinking about what they hope could replace Riley, efforts to keep the west side’s elementary schools, including Mary W. Jackson, aren’t over yet, Puy said.

“The west side is going to put up a fight,” Puy said, “about what we think is an incorrect decision by the school district.”