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Jordan School District looking toward housing alternatives in wake of bond failure

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 6 2013 4:45 p.m. MST

Custodian Tim Griffith works in the custodial workshop at West Jordan Elementary School, accessible only by walking through a classroom or from outside, in West Jordan on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. Voters rejected a $495 million bond proposal for new school buildings in Jordan School District.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — A half-billion-dollar bond proved too costly for Jordan School District voters Tuesday, but district officials say with or without money for new buildings, the challenges of an ever-growing student population remain.

In fall 2014, the district will open a new elementary school in Herriman. After that, the district will simply have to "make do" with the facilities it has, Jordan spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf said.

"There will be more boundary changes. There will be more portables. There will be more year-round schools," Riesgraf said. "Those are the very real challenges that we face right now."

The number of students in Jordan School District is projected to double over the next two decades, and, each year, between 2,000 and 2,500 students are added to the district's ranks.

Currently, 21 Jordan elementary schools operate on a year-round schedule, and 260 portable classrooms are scattered throughout the district — the equivalent of eight elementary schools.

Money from the $495 million bond, which would have cost the average homeowner roughly $240 per year, was intended to be used in the construction of 11 new schools, as well as replacing West Jordan Middle and West Jordan Elementary schools. The bond's project list also included several renovations, from roof replacements to upgraded fire and safety systems.

"The longer we put this off, the more behind we get," Riesgraf said. "It wasn’t a wish list. It was money to build 11 new schools that we desperately need."

The district could potentially address overcrowding by busing students from high-growth areas such as Herriman to West Jordan, where there is some available capacity, she said.

If the situation becomes extreme, the district may be forced to employ double sessions, meaning a second cohort of students would attend class from the afternoon into the early evening, Riesgraf said.

"You can imagine what that is like for parents who try to juggle schedules and what is does even for athletics and extracurricular activities," she said.

Members of the elected school board have not yet had a chance to meet and discuss how to move forward from the bond's failure. The next meeting of the Jordan Board of Education is scheduled for Nov. 26.

The district launched an extensive public information campaign ahead of the vote, distributing an online survey to gauge public opinion and holding a series of open houses and meetings with city councils and school community councils.

But groups opposed to the bond also organized to provide information in advance of Tuesday's election.

During the first week of November, the home page of the Utah Taxpayers Association was dominated by content critical of the bond proposal — including a banner slogan reading "Jordan District may be needy, but Prop 1 is just too greedy." The association's November newsletter also stated opposition to the bond due to the district's refusal to commit to cost-saving construction methods.

Erin Weist, who organized the Vote No For Jordan District Bond Facebook page, said she was surprised at how resoundingly the bond was defeated. After a district-sponsored survey in June showed roughly 80 percent of participants in favor of a bond, the measure ultimately failed by a vote of 67 percent to 33 percent.

"Obviously, there are a lot more people that felt the way we did," Weist said.

Weist, who lives in Herriman, said she agrees with the district that there is a need to address growth. She said anyone who has lived in the area for a few years has seen the rapid development firsthand, but the price tag for the district's plan was simply too steep for taxpayers.

"We’ve seen the way that Jordan has handled the money before and think that the schools they’re building are too lavish and their spending is too excessive," she said. "The amount that they were suggesting was so high, and the return did not seem worth what they were paying."

When asked about student housing alternatives such as year-round schedules and portable classrooms, Weist — whose children are home-schooled — said those efforts would likely have been necessary in the short term during construction if the bond had passed.

Moving forward, she said, her group of bond opponents is planning to meet to discuss suggestions that can be presented to and developed collaboratively with the school board.

Some of the ideas that have been discussed so far include selling off parcels of land owned by the district to raise funds or using online resources to lessen the burden of classroom space, Weist said.

"Obviously there’s a need for growth, and we would like to address that, too," she said. "We're not going to just vote 'no' and walk away."

Riesgraf said the community voiced its opinion with the vote, and the school board will now work to fulfill the public's wishes.

"We can honestly say, as a school district, we ran our educational campaign with integrity, and we didn’t send out misleading or false information," she said. "We can be proud of doing what we did to educate our community."

Following the bond's failure, the Utah Taxpayers Association posted on its Facebook page that it looks forward to working with district officials to develop affordable and sustainable ways to improve education and house students.

Weist said she has not yet contacted district officials but is waiting until she and other bond opponents have had a chance to discuss strategies to address growth.

"We wanted to come prepared with some ideas first, which is why we’re organizing an initial meeting," she said. "We absolutely think that a crucial next step is all of us working together."

Two other bond elections in the state were too close to call Tuesday night. As of Wednesday, the Cache County School District proposal for a $129 million bond had passed by a margin of 184 votes, but district business administrator Dale Hansen said there were still between 200 and 300 outstanding provisional ballots to be counted.

"It would be quite unusual for that few number of provisional ballots to change the results, but mathematically it could happen," Hansen said.

The provisional ballots will be sent to the county elections clerk for verification before being returned to the various municipalities for counting. Hansen said the process of arriving at a final count could take up to a week.

A $55 million Logan School District bond also passed by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, making Jordan School District's $495 million bond proposal the only school district bond to be defeated by voters.

Bond proposals in Duchesne and Washington counties were also approved

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com, Twitter: bjaminwood

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