Park City School District did not comply with environmental laws and local ordinances when it came to contaminated soil discovered behind one of its junior high schools last month, according to findings released by state auditors Monday.
The district also lacked compliance with school construction regulations, auditors found — such as not having the proper local permits.
The findings come as the district looks at an estimated $3 million soil cleanup behind Treasure Mountain Junior High School, which serves eighth and ninth graders. The audit itself began in December 2022 after the district was selected by the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor General to partake.
Auditors found five areas where it recommended the district make improvements: compliance with environmental regulations; compliance with school construction regulations; helping “bolster” its underperforming student groups; its strategic plans to help it make “informed decisions and set meaningful goals”; and better utilizing its student analytics tool.
The district, along with the Park City Board of Education, “appreciates the opportunity to further study the report and to implement actions that increase compliance, efficiency and accountability,” district spokesperson Heidi Matthews wrote in a statement Monday.
‘The district is not a solid waste facility’
In August, the Department of Environmental Quality announced that it had found levels of lead and arsenic in the soil piles behind Treasure Mountain that were considered higher than allowed at the state and local level, a DEQ spokesperson said at the time.
The soil was first excavated from a hill that was leveled behind one of the district’s elementary schools in 2018. More soil and waste was added to the pile in 2022 when that elementary school was expanded.
The soil was reportedly relocated there in part because the district “did not have adequate funding for proper disposal,” administrators told the state.
The district’s actions likely did not comply with Park City’s local soils ordinance nor the state’s solid waste laws, auditors found. The audit states that this has exposed the district to “possible enforcement” not just by Park City, but also the DEQ.
“The district is not a solid waste facility, and thus appears to have been unaware of these regulations when they created the piles and has operated solid waste piles without proper approval since they were created in 2018 and 2022,” the report states, referring to the state’s solid waste laws. “DEQ sent a letter in December 2022 to the district informing them that the piles of soil and other materials are considered solid waste and are noncompliant with the state’s solid waste laws.”
The district could face fines as high as $13,000 per violation per day, though the DEQ has not lodged any penalties against the district for its waste piles.
Auditors made several recommendations to the district regarding the piles, including developing internal controls to effectively plan and budget capital projects on land impacted by environmental regulations and developing internal controls to effectively manage those projects.
Auditors also noted that the Park City Board of Education should provide “adequate oversight” of the district’s environmental internal controls.
District lacked certain permits for school construction projects
Along with environmental oversight issues, auditors also found that the district “needs to improve its compliance with school construction regulations.”
Certain school construction projects were delayed or cost more because the district did not comply with state and local requirements, the audit states. This included not coordinating construction with Summit County, not meeting county permit and land-use requirements, and not following state education board requirements during the planning process.
These violations and instances of noncompliance dated back to construction projects that began in January 2021 and extended to construction pauses enforced by the Utah State Board of Education and Summit County in July and August 2022. The district was not building a new school, but rather expanding six of its seven schools.
Though the district did adequately notify Summit County of the projects, it did not discuss with the county “relevant zoning issues.” Auditors also identified a lack of permits before construction began, including a master-planned development and conditional-use permit; a stormwater pollution prevention plan permit; a construction permit for excavating, grading and placement of fill; and an approved construction mitigation plan.
Because the district also did not fulfill the state school board’s preconstruction checklist before work began — and did not get a state permit from the governing body — the school board had to ask the district to stop its noncompliant construction, halting ongoing work at McPolin Elementary School and Park City High School.
The enforcement also increased construction delays at Jeremy Ranch Elementary School.
“PCSD’s inexperience in school construction increases the risk for noncompliance,” the audit states. “It is the responsibility of the district and its school board to implement adequate controls and oversight to provide a reasonable assurance of compliance.”
Moving forward, the state has recommended that the district thoroughly review compliance risks and make sure any related internal controls comply with federal, state and local requirements.
The report did fault USBE for not effectively enforcing construction regulations, and auditors recommended that the governing body “consider changes to statute to clarify local government authority over land use in relation to school construction by local education agencies.”
Auditors also noted that a statewide audit of school construction may be merited as it saw “potential opportunities” for better USBE oversight over the process.
Improving student performance
Other findings and recommendations included ways the district could better help its low-performing student groups, despite having overall proficiency rates, and do more to oversee such groups that may need additional, targeted support. Auditors noted that the district’s 2023 school year plan did not fulfill federal requirements.
The audit recommended that the district take advantage of state programs, such as Elevate, that help schools that aren’t showing improvement with such student groups, and provide “professional development and collaboration opportunities for schools to align instructional practices within and across grade levels.”
As for improving the district’s strategic planning, the auditors made a handful of recommendations, but mainly concluded that the district should adopt “best practices,” which could help better target underperforming student groups.
“Making the strategic plan more accessible can increase the awareness of the plan among district employees and increase the plan’s impact on employees’ day-to-day activities,” the report said.
The district’s tool for tracking student performance was praised for innovatively using student data to predict student growth. However, auditors noted that the tool’s data could also be used to make decisions about the district’s resources.
“Park City School District recognizes that there is always work to be done and improvements that can be made in furtherance of our mission in providing the best educational opportunities and outcomes for ALL students,” Matthews, with the district, said in a statement Monday. “As we work to implement recommendations moving forward, we look forward to positive results for our schools and community.”
Read the full report below: