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