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Address 'elephant in the room,' redistricting commission tells Granite school officials

Published: Saturday, March 19 2011 8:36 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of Salt Lake County's Redistricting Commission have urged Granite School District officials to address the "elephant in the room" — the perception of some east side patrons that their interests are not adequately represented in school and planning and zoning matters.

Some commission members say that perception is driving the effort to incorporate Millcreek Township and is stirring talk of another attempt to divide the school district. It is a key factor the board should consider in developing recommendations for new school board precinct boundaries, the group was told during a commission meeting Thursday.

Commission Chairwoman Janice Auger Rasmussen said the Salt Lake County Council "has heard loud and strong the current status isn't working well."

Granite school board member Dan Lofgren, who represents east side Precinct 1, disagreed.

"There's a different vibe in the community than there was three years ago," Lofgren said, referring to a previous attempt to split the school district.

"I don't hear that education is the issue that's driving it," he said, referring to incorporation efforts.

But Lofgren said he has — and will continue — to meet with constituents to discuss their concerns. "I'm not sure we've defined what the problem is yet," he told the commission.

Councilman Randy Horiuchi, speaking at a Salt Lake County Council meeting earlier this year, said the school district may want to consider adding at-large seats to school boards so that patrons feel they have better representation. There are three at-large seats on the County Council but there is no provision in state law for that form of representation on school boards.

Under Granite school board's existing boundaries, the precincts of five of seven board members are largely west of State Street. With the exception of a few blocks in the northern-most area of the district, a single board member represents all of the area east of Highland Drive.

The school board has had preliminary discussions about the recommendations it will make to the redistricting commission but it has not yet had an in-depth discussion about at-large school board seats, Lofgren said.

"I don't think we're ready to set aside at-large precincts as having merit. I don't think, we, as a board, have had an opportunity to really chew on that," he said.

Granite District Superintendent Martin Bates said the school district "recognizes and acknowledges ongoing east-west concerns." However, as administrators and the school board have examined new census numbers, redistricting is not the solution to those issues, he said.

"We believe it's more an issue how we conduct our business and communicate," Bates said.

The school board and administrators are working to empower school communities and encourage principals to be more entrepreneurial in their approach to solving problems, he said.

"There are a lot of things the community perceives to be centrally mandated and they don't need to be," Bates said.

New census figures indicate that school board precinct boundaries need to be adjusted to accommodate significant growth on the district's west side. Precinct 7's population is about 65,700, an increase of some 14,500 people since the 2000 Census. The precinct includes Magna and portions of West Valley City.

The district experienced 5 percent to 6 percent overall growth in its six other school board precincts, although counts in Precincts 2 and 4 dropped slightly.

While population largely dictates precinct boundaries, the Granite school board's preliminary discussions about redistricting have also focused on respecting school networks — neighborhood high schools and the elementary and junior high schools that feed into them, Bates said.

Meanwhile, Jordan School District officials said they, too, recognize the need to shift boundaries due to significant growth on the district's far west side. The population in the Riverton area has increased by nearly 18,000 people in the past 10 years alone. "Our greatest concern … is that some of our precincts are so small after redistricting (in 2008 for the school district split) and some are so large. It's just disproportionate," said Jordan school board member Peggy Jo Kennett.

Canyons School District officials told the redistricting commission that the new district had experienced little growth since the precinct boundaries were drawn three years ago.

"A lot of thought went into that at the time," said Charlie Evans, government relations director for the Canyons district. "There's probably not, from our point of view, much that needs to be adjusted."

County staff, however, said the precincts were established based on population estimates. Adjustments may be needed to better reflect 2010 Census figures.

The redistricting commission asked each district to devise three possible scenarios for precincts. The redistricting commission will, no later than Dec. 31, turn over its recommendations to the County Council, which has the final say.

e-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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