Salt Lake City parents question how district chose schools ahead of potential campus closure vote

A June email from a Salt Lake City School District official has at least one parent wondering if the closure study was “reverse-engineered” ahead of a potential Tuesday vote to shutter campuses.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Elizabeth Grant announces a recommendation to close four Salt Lake City elementary schools, during a meeting at Glendale Middle School, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. The school board could vote as early as Tuesday evening to shutter campuses.

An email outlining how a Salt Lake City School District director instructed officials to help select and study certain elementary schools for closure last summer has left some parents skeptical about the closure study process.

The email — which The Salt Lake Tribune obtained Friday through an open records request — was sent June 13 by Brian Conley, the district’s boundaries and planning director, to the district’s Boundary Options Committee. It stated that the committee, along with Conley, should create and present three options for the Salt Lake City school board to study for closure: a list of five, six and seven schools.

The goal was to show board members what the district might look like with around 450 to 500 students at each remaining elementary school, should five to seven elementary schools close, the email stated.

Nearly a month after the email was sent, Conley at a July 11 school board meeting only presented a seven-school list, recommending that the district further study Mary W. Jackson, Emerson, Hawthorne, Bennion, Newman, Riley and Wasatch elementaries for potential closure.

That list was then narrowed in November to four schools recommended for closure, following months of study — Hawthorne, Bennion, Mary W. Jackson and Riley.

The school board could vote as early as Tuesday evening to close the four schools. The board meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. at West High School for the potential vote, which members of the public can attend.

Throughout the process, several parents have said they felt the district did not present the board with enough options while planning to close campuses.

“You didn’t establish options; you said seven schools would be ideal to close,” said district parent Jen Oscarson at a September meeting.

Conley responded at the time that he never said seven schools would be ideal to close. “What I alluded to there was, if you close more than about seven or eight,” he said, “then you’re going to have more than about 470, 475 [students] per school.”

‘They tried to reverse-engineer it,’ parent argues

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian Conley, the Salt Lake City School District's boundaries and planning director, listens to a parent during a public information meeting regarding potential school closures on Sept. 12, 2023.

The school board in February initially voted to evaluate all 27 of its elementary schools for closure — all of which would be scored based off various criteria, including safe walking routes, student enrollment trends and facility conditions.

Conley told board members at the July 11 meeting that the seven schools ultimately selected for further study saw a “notable break” in their scores compared to the rest.

In the June email, Conley first asked the Boundary Options Committee to come to their next meeting with a shortlist of the top seven elementary schools they think should be considered for closure, along with why they thought so. Criteria or a rubric to help committee members select schools was not provided or referenced in the email.

That directive has left parents like Rosemary Winters skeptical about how the July list of seven schools came to be — and whether bias was a factor.

To Winters, it appeared that the committee members “started with a subjective list ... and then afterward, they tried to reverse-engineer it and tell us what criteria they used.”

Another parent, Troy Davis, questioned whether the district’s closure process amounted to a policy violation. According to the district’s G-5 administrative policy, officials were required to create a formal school boundary study list by the end of February.

Davis argued the “approval of recommendations in a [PowerPoint presentation] does not constitute the creation and approval of an Official Study List,” citing the February vote to evaluate all elementary schools. He also noted a handful of meetings with school principals and School Community Council chairs that happened in June, outside of the district’s self-imposed timeline of March to May for such meetings.

That’s why Davis on Friday sent board members Conley’s June email, which was obtained before The Tribune through a separate records request. In the message, he highlighted the email section where Conley instructed committee members to come to a summer meeting with seven schools in mind.

“The large majority of us understand the need to close schools and we can support a process that is backed by data and free of bias,” Davis wrote. “The process ... has not lived up to those expectations.”

District responds

In a response to Davis’s email, which the district shared with The Tribune, Superintendent Elizabeth Grant stated the board during its Feb. 7 meeting approved recommendations to evaluate all 27 elementary schools for closure. Certain meetings with principals and School Community Council members were also extended because of various unforeseen circumstances, she wrote, such as Conley being out on protected leave for a time period.

“I appreciate your advocacy for our elementary schools and the need for the district to follow its board policies and administrative procedures,” Grant responded. “As the district works through this process for the first time in many years, we appreciate correspondence like this as it will help us hone our processes moving forward.”

The response did not specifically mention the June email from Conley. The district did not immediately respond to a request from The Tribune for further comment regarding Conley’s email to committee members.

The last time the district physically closed campuses was in 2002, when Lowell and Rosslyn Heights elementaries were shuttered.

The decision to potentially close campuses again has mostly aimed to “right-size” schools, district officials have said. “Right-sizing” means having around three teachers per grade level at a given school, with around 25 students per classroom, according to the district.

In December 2022, state auditors criticized the district for spending money to keep schools open that were losing students, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Heading into Tuesday’s potential closure vote, both Davis and Winters want board members to vote no, start over, and conduct what they believe should be a fairer closure process.

“This is what would improve education for out students,” Winters said. “But today, I don’t have that confidence, and I feel like my school could be closed and I won’t have a good reason to share with my third-grader on why his school is closing.”

For those who can’t attend the Tuesday board meeting in person, the meeting will be streamed online via the district’s YouTube channel.