The Salt Lake City School District estimates it could lose up to $500 million over the next 25 years in property tax revenue for the area now under control of the Inland Port Authority Board. It also worries about how the massive global trade hub planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost area could affect students’ education in the face of growth and the possibility for worsened air quality.
But although a spokeswoman estimates the district is “the largest taxing entity” affected by the port, it doesn’t have a seat on the 11-member board created to oversee the development — and it doesn’t appear it will get one anytime soon.
“Not this session,” said House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who currently serves on the Inland Port Authority Board. "As we get working groups, they will be part of that. And as the board develops more and we have an executive director, then we’ll revisit the board constitution.”
Adding another member to the port board would require an amendment to SB234, the bill that created the inland port last year and outlined representation from a number of stakeholders, including the Salt Lake Airport Advisory Board, the Department of Transportation and the Salt Lake County mayor’s office.
Salt Lake City has two representatives: one from the mayor’s office and another from the City Council. But Salt Lake City School District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said that while she believes everyone involved wants what’s best for Utah students, no one has the experience to consider the future development’s impacts on education.
“Not having that expertise and that knowledge is a concern for us," Chatwin said. “We’d love to be partners in making sure the port is as successful as it can be. We’re not here trying to be political and trying for support to go away. We know it’s coming. We just want to help as much as we can.”
While the district felt overlooked in the creation of the authority board, Chatwin said there have been recent positive conversations between the two entities. Chris Conabee, the inland port board’s interim director, attended a recent school district board meeting, for example, to answer questions about the port and possible issues surrounding it.
“For our school board, that was really important,” Chatwin said. “They feel like they haven’t had much of a voice, and to have someone from the organization come and give time to them, I think went a long way.”
Inland Port Board Chairman Derek Miller said he wouldn’t oppose efforts to give the school district a spot on the board but noted moves to expand representation would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“I would imagine if it was just wide open, there would be a lot of people that would try to get on the board,” he said. “I do think it’s nice to have stakeholders involved in some way or the other.”
Magna township, which has a piece of its area within the inland port jurisdiction, is also seeking a seat.
‘How does this affect my community?’
The inland port area is located less than a mile away from North Star Elementary School on 1545 N. Morton Drive in Salt Lake City — so close that it’s nearly visible across the freeway through the chain-link fence from the playground.
The future development is a source of concern for Nathan Elkins, who’s been the school’s principal for three years and says his students, many of whom live below the poverty line, are already vulnerable.
“I don't know how they're gonna develop that land,” Elkins said. “So there is a very unknown quantity to this that makes me wonder as a principal, ‘How does this affect my community?’ And I can’t answer that.”
Two other schools are located within a mile of the future inland port area: Meadowlark Elementary and Northwest Middle School.
Without an environmental impact study, which is currently in the works, it’s hard to predict what issues the schools will face from the development, which is expected to bring an increase in rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions. That’s why one of Elkins’ major concerns is the possibility of increased pollution, which he noted tends to disproportionately affect the city’s west side.
“We already manage the particulate matter on a daily basis," he said, “because we have to make sure that on certain days we keep kids in [on recess] based on what those levels are.”
A Brigham Young University professor who looked at school attendance data for 2012 and 2013, in collaboration with The Salt Lake Tribune, found there were more absences across the Wasatch Front on poor air quality days. And Chatwin worries that students’ education could be further disrupted with increased emissions from the port in an area where many families lack health insurance.
“Traditionally, our schools on the west side are often our schools that are more in need,” she said. “We have higher percentages of families from low-income backgrounds, a lot of English-language learners, a lot of students who already face numerous at-risk factors, right? And adding another one, it does not help their education.”
The district has not taken a stance on whether the board should be net-zero — which means it would produce as much renewable energy as it consumes — but is pushing for it to be as low impact as possible, Chatwin said.
With the aid of demographic research, the district has projected its enrollment will decline on Salt Lake City’s west side over the next 20 years as people are priced out of their homes and more housing is built for single occupants, who are less likely to have multiple children. But another worry for Chatwin is the loss of tax revenue combined with the possibility for growth in the area.
“If something like the inland port upsets that balance and brings in a large number of students, we want to make sure we’re ready for them,” she said. “And being able to have a voice on the port, we would have access to data that would help us as well to make sure we’re making informed decisions for our future.”
While they share multiple concerns about the port, Chatwin and Elkins also said they expect to see some positives for their students from what has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development project.
The district is, for example, forming a partnership with Stadler Rail, a Swiss rail-car maker located in the port area, to create an apprenticeship program available to juniors and seniors, which Chatwin said is “a great opportunity” to provide students with valuable job skills.
Elkins also hopes the port will create opportunities for the families of the elementary-aged students with whom he works.
“The demographics there would tell you that most of my families are lower income; they’re working a lot of labor-type jobs,” he said. “So being able to have maybe an area there where the families would have a shorter commute instead of traveling all over the Wasatch area, that might be a bonus where it helps create a little bit of stability.”