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South Jordan councilman wants school district split on ballot, no matter what mayors say

Published: Sunday, July 20 2014 9:16 a.m. MDT

City leaders in South Jordan and West Jordan have until Aug. 5 to decide whether to ask voters if their cities should split from the Jordan School District.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SOUTH JORDAN — The mayors of two Utah cities considering a split from the Jordan School District left a recent meeting with school officials optimistic that the district would be left intact.

West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe said the July 14 meeting — which included more than three hours of occasionally heated negotiation — was a positive step toward reaching a resolution, and South Jordan Mayor David Alvord said things were in "great shape."

"I think we’re going to be able to resolve this without putting it on the ballot," Alvord said.

But South Jordan City Councilman Chuck Newton, seen by many as the chief architect of the potential split, said residents have a right to weigh in on the issue independent of any agreement reached by mayors and the Jordan School Board.

"My preferred outcome is to place it on the ballot and let the people make the choice. I think that’s what it really comes down to," Newton said.

Past, present and future

Talk of a district split has been simmering for some time but reached a boiling point after the most recent legislative session when Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, sponsored HB84, a bill that would limit a city's ability to create a new school district.

The bill ultimately failed, but South Jordan city leaders say it made them wonder whether now might be their one and only chance to consider an independent city school district.

"That threat is still there," Newton said. "To me it’s kind of backing us into a corner."

In May, the South Jordan City Council commissioned a feasibility study to look at how the city would be affected by withdrawing from the school district, a legal requirement that precedes placing the question of a split before voters.

But the decision to split is based on more than just opportunity. Newton and his colleagues on the City Council point to a lack of collaboration between district and municipal leaders, and worry about a looming storm of tax increases.

The district has struggled to keep up with rapid enrollment growth on the Salt Lake Valley's west side, prompting an infamous and ultimately unsuccessful $495 million bond request for new buildings last year.

Those buildings are still needed, Newton said, and school officials — or rather, residents — will soon see a decline in funding from county equalization funds that are set to expire in 2016.

"While I understand the need to be good neighbors and work together, at the same time I believe we need to put it on the ballot and let the residents decide what they want to do," Newton said. "Because after all, it’s their tax money, and they’re going to get hit pretty hard, no doubt about it."

The school board does not deny that the district faces pressing financial needs. But board vice president Susan Pulsipher said those challenges are a reality independent of how many school districts exist in the southwest portion of Salt Lake County.

"We live in an area where there is rapid building," Pulsipher said, "and whether you have a South Jordan School District or the entire Jordan School District as it exists today, we have growth and there is going to be a need for future schools."

Fate of many decided by a few

City leaders in neighboring cities have been less amused by the antics of South Jordan.

Elected officials in West Jordan have publicly stated that they are only considering a split of their own as a response or reaction to South Jordan's threats. And during a recent West Jordan City Council meeting, council members made several pointed criticisms that the district's future was being threatened by a few individuals in South Jordan.

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