Marina Gomberg wonders if proposed closure of Salt Lake City schools is an equity issue veiled as fiscal pragmatism

We moved to our neighborhood, in part, because of the school our son would attend. It’s got strong programming, reasonable class sizes, lots of unique opportunities and a reputation for inclusion and academic excellence. And after a year of Harvey’s attendance at Emerson Elementary confirming those boasts, my wife and I can attest that it’s a school worth moving for.

But now it’s shortlisted for possible closure along with six other schools in the Salt Lake City School District. And quite frankly, I’m not just feeling disappointed. I’m salty about it.

Being bummed is a given; I bet guardians of the children in all the shortlisted schools feel similarly. How will this affect our families, our commutes, our child care, our impacts on the environment?

Sigh. I guess we’ll just have to adjust if that’s what’s best for the greater good.

Except, is it? Because, upon further inspection, I’m not sure that’s the case with closing Emerson.

To be fair, I’m actually not sure it’s the case for any of the seven schools. That the district has seen a drop in enrollment is likely a product of a lack of local affordable housing for families, so it’s frustrating that the proposed solution is a reduction in spending per student instead of addressing the root economic problem with more fervor.

Utah’s reputation for per-pupil spending is already notably bad. Poor Idaho beat us for worst in the nation at last count, which was a spot we had previously held for more than 20 years. Maybe we’ll earn it back (said in an Eeyore voice).

Nevertheless, the Board of Education is under pressure from the state to cut costs by closing schools (lest we pay for the buildings’ utilities unless the classrooms are overpacked).

The reasoning for the district leadership’s choice of recommended schools is a head-scratcher at best. They describe the rationale as having been data-driven, but the data seems to reroute me to a different location, like I missed my proposed exit.

I’m not alone either. Facilitated by the chair of our School Community Council, Joey McNamee (who, for transparency and pride’s sake is my sister), a conversation among a growing community of Emerson guardians has illuminated sincere concerns — not just for Emerson’s families, but perhaps for the entire district. I credit them for helping me move from worried to worked up.

The foundation for my fluster is that without better transparency for this assessment process and clarity around how the data was used to inform critical decisions, this scenario feels like an equity issue veiled as fiscal pragmatism.

The enrollment projections don’t appear to support many of their recommendations. The geographic distribution suggests a possible wealth bias at worst — no schools east of 1300 East are on the list for possible closure — or just disregard for the chasm these closures could create, furthering the income divide in our school district. And the willingness to uproot the recently-relocated special education hub at Emerson.

Educational reformer Horace Mann described public education as the great equalizer and “the balance wheel of the social machinery.” It can only be that if we ensure opportunity is equitably distributed regardless of social factors. Salt Lake City School District deserves nothing less.

I look forward to a lively discussion at the Aug. 1 school board meeting.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marina Gomberg.

Marina Gomberg is a professional communicator, a practicing optimist and a lover of love. She lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, their son, Harvey, and their dogs, Mr. Noodle and Gorgonzola. You can reach Marina at mgomberg@sltrib.com.