It’s been just over five years since the Canyons School District officially began operations of the Jordan School District, of which it had previously been a part. There are many lessons to be learned from that experience, and those who remember the past would recognize that breaking away from an existing district is an arduous undertaking that should only be done under exceptional circumstances.
Recently, a handful of elected officials were calling for the Jordan School District to be divided even further, but, thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. The Jordan District looks like it will remain intact for the time being. However, the challenges that served as the catalyst for district-splitting discussions still remain, and they require immediate attention. The state needs to find ways to ensure that Utah’s educational system is equipped to serve the needs of all of Utah’s students, regardless of the school district in which they find themselves.
The most recent call for a break-up was driven largely by financial concerns. Last year, the district made a $495 million bond request to build new schools to accommodate a flood of new students. Many considered that to be a significant overreach, which is likely why the request failed. But equalization funds that were granted to the Jordan District in the wake of the Canyons split will dry up in 2016, and the district is scrambling to find ways to compensate for that loss. A bill that would have extended those equalization funds for another four years was defeated in committee in the last legislative session. Local lawmakers argue that increased local control will be necessary if the likely tax increases necessary to fund those schools will be borne primarily by local residents.
What’s interesting to note, however, is that some opponents of SB91, the bill that would have extended the Jordan District equalization fund sunset into 2020, were critical of the measure not because it ended equalization payments, but because it would postpone dealing with this challenge on a statewide basis. “We need to step back and solve the larger problem,” state Sen. Aaron Osmond told the Senate Education Committee. He insisted that it’s time to “put on our statewide hats and come up with a solution to address this problem on a more macro-level.”
He’s exactly right.
Canyons District broke away from the Jordan District because residents wanted to see their property taxes funding their local schools rather than subsidizing poorer neighborhoods. But public education ought to provide equal services to children of all income levels, and the only way to do that is to find ways to equalize school funding statewide, not district by district. Doing so will require a great deal of effort and innovation, but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.