Salt Lake City school board is in crisis and its leaders have failed to respond, Editorial Board writes

Declining enrollments means some SLC schools must close.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City School District Board meets Sept. 23, 2022.

Closing a school can be painful.

Generations of students have been through some of their most memorable and formative experiences there. Any suggestions that a school should be shuttered is generally met with anger and sadness from the community. And particularly so if there is reason to think that schools that serve minorities, the poor and other marginalized groups are the first to be targeted.

But sometimes the numbers just aren’t there. Demographic patterns shift. Student populations drop.

Some families might hope fewer students in a school will mean smaller class sizes or more attention for their children. But when the headcount falls below a certain critical mass, teachers can wind up with larger classes and other support services while extracurricular activities go away.

So it falls to elected members of a local school board to make the hard choices and decide that keeping some schools open — or, worse, spending millions of dollars to upgrade or replace them — doesn’t serve students or taxpayers.

An extreme case of a failure to recognize and deal with that hard truth is outlined in a recent state audit of the Salt Lake City School District.

As student numbers declined in the capital city district, the audit recounted, the school board kept putting off decisions about what schools to close or consolidate. The result was an estimated $40 million in local property tax increases over six years that would not have been needed if the board had faced the problem head-on.

The report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor General also identified $3.6 million in annual expenditures that were only necessary because schools that should have been shut led to additional operating costs — utilities, food service, etc.

Public education is already far short of the support it should have from the Utah Legislature and some activists. This crucial part of our public infrastructure is chronically underfunded, teachers and other professionals are shockingly disrespected and some of the loudest voices at the school board podium are those spouting spurious nonsense about anti-white racism and widespread pornography in school libraries.

Having the clear failures of leadership in the Salt Lake City School District documented so starkly — though, to anyone who has been paying attention, not surprisingly — is a necessary function of the Legislature and its auditors. But it also will become fodder for those who already mistrust the whole idea of public education and seek to further undermine it, culturally and financially.

This is something the community of Salt Lake City cannot allow.

People in leadership roles — Mayor Erin Mendenhall and members of the Salt Lake City Council, members of the local delegation of the Utah Legislature and the State Board of Education — should be exerting whatever formal or informal influence they have to push the local district in the right direction.

The audit rightly noted that the district faces “unique challenges.” Which means this is not a case where easy tasks have been bungled. Not only is the Salt Lake City School District facing declining enrollments, it also has more than its share of students from low-income homes, where English is not the first language, and who have special needs.

And then there was a global pandemic.

But the fact that hard choices have been kicked down the road has just made the current tasks that much more difficult.

Auditors concluded that school board members were not just dodging their primary duty of setting policy and planning. They were also improperly mucking about in the day-to-day operations of the district — trying to influence personnel decisions and contracts for professional services — even as they found themselves incapable of keeping a superintendent in place. (By early next year, when the currently vacant position should be filled again, the district will have had five superintendents — two of them interim — in less than three years.)

The Legislature, auditors wisely recommended, should consider putting into place a law that would allow local school boards to call misbehaving board members to account.

The dysfunction of the school board can only spiral out of control as potential candidates for seats on the board, as well as talented teachers and administrators, are discouraged from coming anywhere near the place.

It is a safe bet that even politically aware citizens of Salt Lake City don’t know who their precinct’s school board member is. One thing that might help would be to move school board elections from even-numbered years, when they are buried in a list that goes from president of the United States to members of the Council Council, to odd-numbered years, when mayors and city council members are chosen, keeping the focus local.

At the very least, school board plans to spend millions upgrading Highland and West high schools should clearly and publicly take into account some realistic projections on how many students each of them may be serving over the next several years. We have too many needs to be spending all that money on empty buildings.