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Salt Lake City school board member's complaint stirs controversy

Published: Friday, March 1 2013 7:08 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Is Salt Lake City’s east side better than the west side?

A school board member says it is when it comes to elementary school teachers, and he has filed a federal complaint because he says the board and superintendent are shirking the discussion.

Michael Clara said there are too many inexperienced and ineffective teachers at west side elementary schools, due to attrition.

“In the Salt Lake City School District, the highest concentration of the least experienced teachers are employed in the schools with the highest number of students of color, which is on the city’s west side,” read Clara’s complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In the complaint, Clara also accuses his colleagues on the board and the district of enabling an unfair system.

“Over the years, the superintendent and my predecessors have produced and sustained a caste system of public education that allocates educational opportunity based on wealth and privilege, rather than on student and community needs,” the complaint read.

Clara said the district was told of the west side exodus a year ago, and he was thwarted in his attempt to reintroduce the matter at the last board meeting and isn't scheduled on the next one.

“The idea was that I was supposed to sit at the table with six other board members and we make policy based on the interest of our children,” Clara said. “And you can’t do that right now under the current culture.”

Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers said he didn’t know why Clara went outside the district and complained to the federal government.

Withers said the district was not avoiding Clara’s concerns and the whole flap was more of an issue of procedure and a matter of more urgent talking points with the Utah Legislature in session.

“There was nothing to obstruct or nefarious to hide,” he said. “How you recruit and retain and then support great teachers is a pretty complex task.”

Withers said the issue would come up at a later date.

Some schools because of their federal classification have more teachers per student, naturally leading to greater turnover, Withers suggested.

He also said “inexperienced” does not equal “ineffective.”

Though Clara said he pressed the issue because of feedback from parents in his district, not every west-side resident could articulate a criticism of the system.

“I can’t find anything negative about this side compared to any other side,” said Michael Elizares, whose granddaughter attends North Star Elementary.

Former teacher Heather Lyman said the blame for any lack of success in west-side schools lies with parents.

“If there were more parents invested in their students’ education, then the west side schools would have a better result,” she said.

Clara said the Office for Civil Rights would review his complaint and determine whether to investigate further.

He said he was hopeful the district and the school board would at some point revisit the teacher migration issue. 

E-mail: aadams@ksl.com

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