Ashley Anderson: Salt Lake City schools aren’t planning for big demographic shifts

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Bella Maycock and Abolina Shakiye read in an after school program at Salt Lake City's Bennion Elementary School on Feb. 19, 2019.

While Utah anticipates population growth, Salt Lake City’s urban school district faces a significant decrease in school-aged children. Based on Davis Demographics’ 2018 report, elementary school enrollment in the Salt Lake City School District will decrease by more than 2,000 students in the next 10 years. Secondary schools face reductions over 20%.

This loss will necessitate multiple school closures, yet the district has not presented a public plan, opting instead to tinker with an existing boundary review policy. Without a comprehensive assessment of all school boundaries and transparent implementation of expedient closures, the district makes this process more painful for schools and families.

Earlier this year, Superintendent Lexi Cunningham’s building use committee recommended closure for Bennion Elementary. A final decision on the matter was delayed until next year, citing concerns the decision would unfairly punish the school’s racially diverse and predominantly low-income demographic.

With Bennion’s enrollment continuing to decline, it’s likely to be recommended for closure again and the district’s back-and-forth obscures the urgency of closure overall. It also misses an opportunity to reconsider choices and policies that drive declining enrollment.

As an arts educator and parent, I’ve witnessed a decade of racial and socioeconomic segregation in Utah schools. Historically affluent schools lay claim to STEAM programming that is actually common throughout the district. This neighborhood lore results in enrollment dips for mixed-income areas as parents choose out-of-boundary schools for their children, and that cements beliefs that kids fare better outside their neighborhood.

The same debate plays out nationally over vouchers and charter schools, with subsequent student mobility creating unpredictable enrollment and compounding parent skepticism about urban schools.

School choice is not the only contributor to concerns over enrollment. On Oct. 1, the school board voted to sign on to two new Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency projects using property tax dollars which would otherwise go directly to schools. Essentially, the board agreed to cap their own property tax income at 2016 rates for large swaths of the city and give 75% of growth for the next twenty years to the RDA as they promote development on State Street and parts of the Westside along 900 South (9-Line).

According to the Utah Office of Legislative Research, between 2014 and 2018, the district paid over $50 million to the RDA for similar projects, including the West Capitol Hill Community Redevelopment Area.

As the RDA used school monies for developments along 300 West, enrollment at nearby Washington Elementary continued to decline, keeping it second lowest in the district. While increased families for the area were an aim, storefronts remain empty and promised amenities for families, such as grocery stores, have been removed by developers.

Advocates may claim that, in each of these projects, the district will get the money back (for the grandchildren of current pupils) as project areas increase in value. But of those 2014-2018 projects, scarcely 30% of the investment has been recouped.

Moreover, the promise of increased property values itself undoes the promise of families for the district. Decreased affordability is one of the precise factors Davis Demographics evidenced as a contributor to declining enrollment.

Riley Elementary is an under-enrolled school near the 9-Line, which stands to lose even more families from their currently racially integrated and mixed income demographic on the west side. If the district had directly asked young families from Riley if they’d prefer property value increases in two decades or a well-funded neighborhood school for their children, what do you suppose they would choose?

While the RDA must spend a small percentage of funds on affordable housing per state code, past RDA projects show this requirement quickly turns into homes designed for single adults or couples, not the families desperately needed to sustain enrollment.

Cunningham and Board President Tiffany Sandberg should ask themselves whether schools should be in the business of underwriting private developments, particularly in a state known for low per-pupil spending. They must also work on long-term closure plans. Renewing parent confidence and ensuring sustainably populated schools can not be stalled any longer.

Ashley Anderson

Ashley Anderson is a parent and arts educator living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Salt Lake City.