Seeking to end the polarization and conflict caused by the controversial high school boundary decision, Salt Lake Superintendent John W. Bennion wants the school board and patrons to unite behind a compromise that would phase in open enrollment.
A separate part of his proposal would strengthen the district's commitment to shared governance by giving individual schools more responsibility in developing their instructional programs and greater flexibility in spending their money.Bennion's proposal was added to the Wednesday afternoon agenda of what had been intended as the school board's work-study session on the district's nearly $90 million budget. Although a draft of his proposal was stamped "for public information on June 1, 1988, at noon," news of his intentions began leaking out several days ago.
Tuesday night a hastily called meeting of East High parents, who are upset at East's share of the equity plan and have pushed for open enrollment, drew 50 patrons from the Harvard-Yalecrest and Oak Hills neighborhoods. Several constituents who backed equity, the plan designed to create three equally strong high schools with the new boundaries, met earlier in the day with Bennion to get proposal details.
But those who came to Wednesday afternoon's board meeting ready to offer their pros or cons were disappointed. Board President F. Keith Stepan announced that the board only wanted to hear Bennion's ideas and would not take patron comments. The board set a 7 p.m. hearing for public comment on June 14.
Calling for a "fresh look" at a compromise to wash away the acrimony left from the boundary decision, Bennion said his proposal is an attempt to balance equity and freedom of choice. The district now has closed enrollment for the high schools. Certification of mental, emotional or physical problems is required for a transfer approval, and very few transfers are allowed. Because of that, students upset with their newly assigned high schools have little chance of being moved.
The superintendent said that in the more than four months since the boundary decision, a lot of energy has been aimed at scuttling it. "I don't think that energy is going to help us, and it is not healthy," he said.
Under Bennion's proposal, the boundaries adopted by the board will be in effect, except for exceptional cases, for all South High students and ninth-graders next year. After one year, these students would be allowed to transfer from their assigned schools on a space-available basis.
"The rationale here is that students who are signed up will have the opportunity to test for one year whether the assigned school meets their needs. In my judgment, many, if not most, will find the assigned schools meet their needs," the superintendent said.
Beginning in 1990, the proposal calls for open enrollment for all high school students. Bennion said that, in the two years before open enrollment is embraced, each high school will be developing its own flavor under the other part of the proposal so students and parents would be able to match interests and needs to available high school programs.
With the governance portion of the proposal, the school district would pilot "site-based reform." The district would dole out block grants to individual schools to develop superior educational programs.
The goal "is to free up very considerable human resources to the maximum advantage in helping students learn all they can learn," Bennion said.
Although the district would require schools to follow certain guidelines and standards, the administrators, teachers and parents of individual schools, in a spirit of partnership and ownership, would work out instructional improvement activities such as curriculum development, textbook and equipment choices, staff development and instructional strategies such as year-round schools, Bennion said.
The block grants would not come from any new money, but would be state money that was formerly restricted in its use. The Legislature has authorized a pilot program, for five districts, that would remove the strings attached to certain categories of state money going to the district.
Bennion said the largest block of categorical money eligible under this program would be the $2 million going to the district's career ladder program.
To participate, the district has to apply to the State Office of Education by Monday, and funds wouldn't be available until the 1989-90 school year. Although they expressed reservations, board members gave their approval for the application when Bennion said the next year would be spent in working out a plan and deciding whether or not to actually pursue site-based reform.
In discussing open enrollment, Bennion said he knows some feel his proposal brings open enrollment too soon to give equity a chance, while others worry that schools will be damaged in the delay before open enrollment is phased in.
"Nobody really knows for sure. My feeling is, in light of the polarization, that there has to be some risk on both sides, some discomfort on both sides, but we have to be willing to take the chance," he said.
There must be board and city unity to let the healing begin, he added. "My feeling is a city divided against itself, over a period of time, will lose a lot of what makes it an attractive place to live here and to go to school here."
Board Vice President Stephen Boyden, who has voted all along with the minority for open enrollment, complimented the superintendent on his attempt to seek a middle ground. He said the most important thing was to put the South kids in a stable environment, but he would like an earlier open-enrollment timetable.
Board members asked a number of questions about the proposals, but gave no indication of how they would vote. A decision is expected at the June 21 meeting.