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SALT LAKE CITY — Several Utah lawmakers on Thursday criticized Alpine School District's process of studying potential closures of five elementary schools during a committee meeting held during the Legislature's interim session.
Members of the Administrative Rules Review and General Oversight Committee heard a presentation from a group of concerned parents, some of whom are listed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the district earlier this month.
The absence of the superintendent and board members of the Alpine School District at the meeting drew anger from lawmakers, who decided to subpoena the board members to require them to attend the next committee meeting in person. Some lawmakers, prompted by the parents' allegations, also mentioned plans to propose legislation focused on school closures.
"I'm disappointed greatly that we don't have members of the school board who are the elected officials sitting in those chairs," said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi. "The fact that we don't have any of the elected officials sitting in the room there is exceedingly irritating to me."
The presentation, like the lawsuit, alleges that the district hasn't followed the law in its process of exploring the closure of Lehi, Valley View, Lindon, Windsor and Sharon elementary schools and associated boundary studies.
"The process has been so blighted from the beginning that we believe it necessary for the district to restart and reengage in the process, as outlined by Utah code," Alicia Alba, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and parent representing the group, told the committee during the presentation.
According to Utah Code, parents of students enrolled in any affected school must be notified 120 days before that school is closed or its boundaries are changed.
Essentially, a group of parents — 33 plaintiffs were named in the lawsuit — allege that the district prematurely closed the schools without properly following the 120-day timeline. The district has maintained that no school closures have yet to be decided on and that it has abided by state code throughout the process.
During the district's Nov. 29 board meeting, after a proposed $595 million bond for the district failed, the board requested a districtwide boundary study to explore possibilities around restructuring or consolidating boundaries and evaluating school buildings for potential closure, Alpine School District spokesman David Stephenson said.
In early December, the district sent a letter to parents notifying them that since the proposed bond failed, the district would be initiating a boundary study that could result in potential closures.
Stephenson said all buildings the district aimed to address through the bond funds are on the Utah K-12 Public Schools Unreinforced Masonry Inventory, making the buildings seismically unsafe in the event of an earthquake.
The aforementioned elementary schools made their way onto the unreinforced masonry inventory and are considered for closure.
On March 1, the district sent an email to parents and city mayors, councils and administrators, notifying them that the five elementary schools were being considered for closure and/or boundary adjustments and starting the 120-day notice period prior to the closure of any schools, as required by Utah Code.
However, the lawsuit claims that at a Feb. 28 board meeting, the board "voted to close Sharon, Windsor, Valley View, Lindon and Lehi elementary schools and implement the associated boundary and program changes to be effective in the '23-24 school year."
Alpine School District to explore closure of 2 schools, 3 others postponed
Citizens on Tuesday strongly urged the Alpine School District to reconsider its proposal to close five elementary schools due to seismic issues.
"On Feb. 28, they voted their final vote to close the five elementary schools. So before March 1, which is the notification date that they're (Alpine School District) now going with," Alba said.
Seemingly, a bulk of the disagreement between the plaintiffs and the district can be traced to the Feb. 28 board meeting, when board member Joylin Lincoln made a motion "that the board of education direct staff to begin a formal process, in accordance with state statutory requirements, of closing Sharon, Windsor, Valley View, Lindon and Lehi elementary schools and implement the associated boundary and program changes to be effective in the '23-24 school year."
The motion passed, with board member Sarah Beeson casting the lone opposing vote.
The March 1 email sent out by the district the day after the Feb. 28 board meeting states that the motion passed was "to move various components of the General Boundary Study to a FORMAL STUDY."
Essentially, the district said that the vote wasn't a final nail in the coffin of the five schools but, instead, a vote to move into the formal study process — denoted by the March 1 email specifically notifying parents who could be impacted.
Alba took it even further, alleging that the district "actually started closing the schools" on March 1.
"They reassigned administrators. They encouraged teachers to find employment elsewhere. They asked PTAs ... to not hold elections," she said.
When asked to comment on these claims earlier this month, Stephenson said the district is unable to comment on "pending litigation."
After Alba presented her case to the committee, Utah Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, who serves as the committee chairman, said that the committee had invited the district's board members and superintendent to participate in the Thursday hearing. Upon learning that they weren't in attendance, Bramble said that it was a "concern that they've all decided to not be present."
Stephenson, Craig Brinkerhoff, executive director of legal services and Rob Smith, business administrator for the district, were the only district employees to attend the hearing in person.
Board member Lincoln was the only board member to attend in any fashion as she joined via Zoom.
Lawmakers also raised concerns that the decision to close the districts was made during the Feb. 28 board meeting.
"A decision has been made and then after it's been made, then you at least go through some motions to appear to be studying," Bramble said. "That's what it appears, from this presentation, has occurred."
"That's one interpretation — that the decision had been previously made," Brinkerhoff responded. "There are other interpretations that the decision has yet to be made."
We sometimes have to move schools and boundaries and close facilities and make decisions but there has to be that transparency and I have to tell you, this feels like it was just a cover-up.
–Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City
"The decision was not made at that point (Feb. 28) to close the schools, but it was proposed," Stephenson said. "That March 1 email indicated specifics of which schools were being proposed for closure. After that email, that's when we held the various open houses throughout the community."
Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, echoed issues raised by Alba and other parents throughout the process, alleging that the district took "actions to close the schools."
"I do know that the rest of the school's administrations were moving forward in Alpine School District and they were being assigned or reassigned to schools, but not these five (schools)," Brammer said. "We can't just have — when parents are upset — that schools can't close. But that process needs to be a little more deferential to the voters."
After a lengthy period of questioning the district representatives, the committee voted to subpoena the district's superintendent and school board to attend the next committee meeting in person.
Additionally, the committee voted to open a bill file relating to the process by which school districts close schools and referred it to the Legislature's education committee.
Multiple lawmakers expressed their intent to pursue legislation focused on districts closing schools.
During the 2019 Legislative Session, now-retired Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, sponsored SB245, a bill requiring a 120-day notice before closing a school after the Granite School District school board voted to close a school less than a month after district officials informed the community about the plans.
"Senator Mayne is not here. ... But I can tell you, she's probably not happy as she's listening to this committee because this was a very, very important bill for her that had to do to making sure parents feel empowered and not just be, you know, taken over by a district," Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said.
"We sometimes have to move schools and boundaries and close facilities and make decisions, but there has to be that transparency and I have to tell you, this feels like it was just a cover-up," Escamilla said.
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Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and military news.
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