It’s official: 4 Salt Lake City elementary schools will close

The schools will permanently shut down, taking effect at the start of the next academic year.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman reacts as Salt Lake City School District board members vote 4-3 to close four campuses during a school board meeting at West High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

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Salt Lake City School District board members on Tuesday voted to permanently shut down four local elementary schools: Bennion and Hawthorne on the east side, and Mary W. Jackson and Riley on the west.

Before the 4-3 vote, Superintendent Elizabeth Grant thanked parents and community members for coming out to months of meetings to speak up for their schools, showing “remarkable support” for their campuses and teachers.

Change is hard, she added — even good change. But Grant said change is necessary as districts across the state and country continue to lose students.

“To have more schools than we need is not good for student learning, it’s not good for teacher collaboration and it’s not good for providing them full support,” Grant said. “It is also not financially sound.”

The four selected schools will shut their doors for good at the beginning of the 2024-25 school year.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Elizabeth Grant speaks before school board members voted 4-3 to close four campuses on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

The final decision comes nearly a year after the district in February 2023 first began studying all 27 of its elementary schools’ boundaries and populations. After those evaluations, the district in July selected seven schools to further study for potential closure.

In November, the Salt Lake City School District narrowed that list of seven to four, recommending that Bennion, Hawthorne, Mary W. Jackson and Riley shut down. The board’s vote Tuesday marked a formal approval of the district’s recommendations.

Students currently enrolled at the closing schools will continue to attend through the rest of this school year. But next school year, they will be shifted to other nearby campuses:

  • Bennion students will be reassigned to Emerson, Liberty, Uintah and Wasatch elementaries.

  • Hawthorne students will be sent to Emerson and Whittier elementaries.

  • Mary W. Jackson students will be reassigned to Backman, Rose Park and Washington elementaries.

  • Riley students will be sent to Edison, Franklin, Mountain View and Parkview elementaries.

Families can view more detailed maps on the school district’s website to see where their new boundaries will fall, depending on where they live.

What happens next?

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Clockwise from top left: M. Lynn Bennion Elementary, Hawthorne Elementary, Mary W. Jackson Elementary and Riley Elementary will all shut down, following a Salt Lake City School District board vote on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2023.

Following Tuesday’s vote, the school district will now begin transitioning students and families of closing campuses to their new school communities.

That transition will include “early and often” communication on next steps, meet-and-greet events for students and families, and offering social-emotional support for currently enrolled students at their closing school.

Parents who wish to send their children to district schools outside of their new, assigned boundaries will be eligible to do so during a “special open enrollment” period from Feb. 5 to Feb. 18, according to the district’s website. They can apply through the district’s online open enrollment applications.

Faculty and staff who work at the schools slated to close will be offered “equivalent employment opportunities” within the district, Grant said in November. That includes classroom paraprofessionals, lunchroom staff and custodial staff, Grant explained at a meeting later that month.

“The community, students and families will see familiar faces; there will be continuity in change,” she said at the time.

The board on Tuesday also voted to redraw boundaries for 14 other Salt Lake City elementary schools: Backman; Edison; Emerson; Ensign; Franklin; Liberty; Mountain View; Newman; Parkview; Rose Park; Uintah; Wasatch; Washington; and Whittier.

Special district programs currently hosted at two of the closing schools will also be shifted to different campuses, following Tuesday’s vote:

  • Mary W. Jackson currently hosts a Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program. That program will move to Newman.

  • Hawthorne currently houses a Magnet program. That program will move to Indian Hills Elementary.

‘I don’t know what’s going to happen’

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mallika Filtz, a parent of two students at Hawthorne Elementary School, speaks to Salt Lake City School District board members before they voted 4-3 to close four elementary campuses on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

As parents drifted out of West High School’s auditorium following the Tuesday night vote, many were left wondering about their kids’ future.

One person even booed school board members, calling for them to keep campuses open despite the final decision.

Hawthorne parent Mallika Filtz said she was “super disappointed” about her children’s school closing.

Filtz, who has a third grader and a fifth grader at Hawthorne, now worries whether she’ll be able to keep her kids enrolled with their friends next year. Her children are set to be reassigned to Emerson, while her third grader’s friends for example are set to be rezoned to Whittier.

“We’ve been through COVID already, and they’ve had a very challenging elementary school experience up until this point already,” Filtz said. “So to add this on top of it is just going to be real hard.”

Though families like hers can apply for special open enrollment, Filtz still said “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” because open enrollment is not a guarantee.

Another Hawthorne parent, Troy Davis, said hearing the board’s decision was “painful,” especially as some parents, including him, remain confused about how exactly the school district narrowed its closure study list to seven schools, then four.

“I hope the district gets it right next time; they didn’t get it right this time,” Davis said, pointing to remarks from Grant and other district officials about more potential school closures in the future.

Why did the district close schools?

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District board members listen to public comment before a 4-3 vote to close four elementary campuses on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

The last time the district shuttered schools was in 2002, when Lowell and Rosslyn Heights elementaries closed their doors. In the years since, district officials have looked to study more potential school boundary changes and closures.

But the latest closure effort followed December 2022 findings from state auditors, who criticized the district for spending money to keep schools open that were losing students, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

This time, officials said, the district’s goal in shutting down campuses was to “right-size” classrooms — which means having three teachers per grade level at each school, with around 25 students per class.

The closure process has not come without criticism. In public meetings, Salt Lake City parents and residents have argued that the district was not transparent enough about why it chose to further evaluate certain schools for closure, but not others.

Some called for the school board to vote against the district’s four-school closure recommendations Tuesday, start over, and conduct what they believe should be a fairer process.

Bryce Williams, who represents Precinct 1 on the west side and serves as the school board’s vice president, echoed those transparency concerns ahead of the Tuesday vote, for which he voted no.

“Transparency is the key to good governance. Unfortunately, we’ve heard from our community [that] they did not feel transparency was always present in this process,” he said, which was met with applause from meeting attendees. “Transparency must be present when decisions that impact the future of our children are being made.”

He acknowledged the district’s “careful effort” to be transparent, but said the board must “lean in” to complaints from families.

“If we cannot get buy-in from our community around transparency, that gives me great concern making a decision like this tonight,” he said.

He added that constituents’ “resounding desire” for him to oppose the closures was also driving his decision, which was also “deeply influenced by concerns with equity, particularly for west-side neighborhoods.”

Board member Jenny Sika, who represents Precinct 2 on the west side, also acknowledged transparency complaints Tuesday, pushing back against concerns before voting in favor of the closures.

“I cannot come to a conclusion that [members of the school district’s Boundary Options Committee] were not transparent,” she said. “My conclusion is that they’re human, and we’re human.”