Despite declining enrollment in the Salt Lake City school district and a first step by the school board to consider boundary changes and closures, that process is being delayed by at least a year.
Superintendent Timothy Gadson told board members Tuesday he had decided against providing them with an official study list, one of the first steps in the process. Board members had asked him to start work on a list, and a proposal from district staff included 14 elementary schools; Some are more than half empty based on capacity.
“I actually recommend that we continue to study and work with that list,” Gadson said, “but that I don’t present a study list tonight and that we try to revisit it next February.” … I’m asking that we delay this until next February when the new board is in place,” following a board election this fall.
The financial, emotional and health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic would be compounded if the conversation continued now, said board member Mohamed Baayd, whose term ends in 2024. “The last thing we want to do is pour more fire into the fire, that’s fine,” he said.
Next year he added: “We would have new board members and we can continue the process from there. But now, by continuing to take this up, we are actually doing a disservice to the families, the students, the community, and the teachers and staff who are injured.”
The money question
Board members learned in early February that the district’s declining enrollment — combined with its staffing formula — would have required funding for 76.5 fewer apprenticeship positions over the next year.
They then voted to keep some of those jobs funded, with retirements and attrition expected to account for the 42 jobs lost without layoffs. The remaining 34.5 jobs, explained Business Administrator Alan Kearsley, “will be covered by a one-off fund balance because there are no plans to ever achieve those cuts. It’s supposed to soften it a bit for the next year and then hit the other half the year after that.
The board’s willingness to find a resolution then influenced its decision to hold off on filing a formal study list, Gadson said.
County officials on Tuesday did not say how future financial gaps related to lower enrollments would be covered as all elementary schools are scheduled to remain open for another three years. Gadson said the school closure process, now delayed a year, will take two years to complete.
However, board member Nate Salazar inquired about federal pandemic grants given to districts, known as the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Assistance) fund. Could they, he asked, be tapped for financial needs “over the next year in terms of staffing or special programs or things like that”?
“We’d have to check that,” Kearsley replied.
Board Chair Melissa Ford observed, “Paradoxically, when a school gets smaller, the classes sometimes get bigger” — when a school has a teacher for a class, but has too many students in that class. She urged Gadson to remain flexible in staffing classrooms rather than allowing class sizes to grow over the next year.
“Going forward, we can promote our schools with really small class sizes and help make educational gains from those class sizes if we can measure that this is a perfect use of what these ESSER funds are intended for,” said Ford, “intended to help us regain a foothold that may have been lost during this time.”
The postponement doesn’t mean the conversation is over, said board member Kristi Swett.
“We need to make it clear to our community, Superintendent, that we are implementing a moratorium,” Swett said. “If we use ESSER funds next year for whatever, I just don’t want our community to think this isn’t going to be a conversation we need to have.
“…We’re still looking at that, but we’re also trying to calm down into this conversation.”
Without the postponement, Gadson said, the boundary and closure review process would have been initiated by that school board and completed by a board composed of various members elected in November and added in January 2023.
District procedures state that the trial is scheduled to begin in February. Ford noted that Gadson and his cabinet will continue to work on a proposal between now and next February.
Two cabinet-level positions were added at the start of the school year. Baayd asked Gadson to discuss why the district was hiring for senior cabinet-level positions while reducing the number of apprenticeships — an issue Baayd says families have raised with him.
“A reduction in teaching staff simply does not mean a reduction in the services and support that the district has yet to provide schools,” Gadson replied.
Only 0.46% of the district’s budget is used to pay administrative salaries and expenses, he added. “Most of the money we spend from our budget is already in schools,” he said.
Board member Katherine Kennedy said she hears a similar sentiment in her district, about “a declining district” adding administration. It’s a “legitimate concern for people,” she said, “and I just hope that the Superintendent and the Superintendent’s Cabinet think very clearly and strongly that that’s the feedback that we’re really getting clear from the public right now.” “
West High School student Arundhati Oommen, who serves as a student board member, said she heard the same concerns from teachers.
“I think the goal of our board is to do what is best for our students,” she said, “but I think that also means how we are taught in the classrooms. And with really big class sizes – I go to classes with so many students – and so I think there are concerns that I think are valid.”
The start list
Here is the list Gadson suggested to the district as a starting point. Paul Schulte, the district’s executive director for auxiliary services, explained that he first convened the cabinet and provided members with a map of elementary schools and basic statistics about them such as enrollment and capacity. The list reflects patterns that emerged as members broke up into small groups, he said.
“And I thought that was a really good place to start because it was noticeable with different people working independently,” he said.
The group hasn’t started looking at coding in schools yet, he added. Kennedy also suggested evaluating all of the district’s elementary schools — not just these 14 — and considering the locations of previous school closures.