There is no doubt in Brian Allen's mind: A smaller school district would be a better school district: more responsive to community needs; swifter action on parents' input; an eagerness to try something new, to deliver a better product to kids.
There is no doubt in Betty Shaw's mind: Jordan School District is a great school district right now: high graduation rates; top-notch programs; responsive to community and parent needs; an overall great product now jeopardized.
Never before have voters gone to the polls to split a Utah school district. Advocates present research indicating a smaller school district will be better for kids and community involvement. But a University of Utah professor hired by east-side Granite District cities to review the research says the jury's still out on whether smaller is better.
Tuesday, voters in West Jordan, Sandy, Draper, Midvale, Alta and Cottonwood Heights will decide whether to split the state's largest school district east-west along the Jordan River and create a separate West Jordan city school district. For many, the decision will come down to philosophy and finance.
The new east district would have about 33,500 students a far cry from the some 80,000 in Jordan District now and become Utah's fifth-largest. A West Jordan District would have about 21,000 students.
Remaining Jordan District consisting of Bluffdale, Herriman, Riverton, South Jordan and unincorporated west-side communities would have about 25,000 students.
An east district would boost parents' voice in decision-making, keep tax dollars in the community and create an opportunity for educational innovations, supporters say.
An east district would have more money per student. The east contains 57 percent of Jordan District's tax base and would have taxable value per student around $376,000, vs. $207,000 on the remaining west side, district numbers show.
Programs could be sustained, and needs better addressed, supporters say.
"The real challenge we have is that the needs of the schools in our neighborhoods are being ignored because of the tremendous demands of growth in other areas of the district," Allen, vice chairman of Citizens for Small School Districts, said in an e-mail to the Deseret Morning News.
But that doesn't mean the east is turning its back on the west, Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore said. East-side leaders supported the district issuing the remaining $196 million in district building bonds, meaning east-siders will pay interest on them even if they break away. Leaders also are working with the Legislature to help tax-poor, growing districts afford buildings.
But the ultimate perk in a split is a more manageable sized district, with greater and more focused community representation that can only translate into good things for kids, supporters say.
Research shows smaller is better in terms of class size 15 to 19 kids being optimal and schools, with an optimum put at 200- to 400- student elementaries and 400 to 900 student middle- and high-schools, according to a study by the Utah Education Policy Center, conducted for Holladay and South Salt Lake cities and Salt Lake County as they examined breaking away from Granite School District.
Split supporters note smaller schools and classes are products of smaller school districts.
That is certainly the case among rural Utah School Districts, according to State Office of Education 2006 fiscal year staffing ratios. Jordan District had the states' largest class sizes with an average 26.67 students per teacher, state numbers show. By comparison, the 23,000-student Salt Lake District had 22 students per teacher.
Then again, the 6,300-student Murray District has 23 students per teacher, the same as Granite District, which is more than 10 times bigger than Murray.
Research, however, doesn't pinpoint an optimal size school district, the education policy center reported. Andrea Rorrer, center director and U. assistant professor in educational leadership and policy, notes smaller school districts won't necessarily guarantee smaller schools and class sizes.
But Cullimore argues a smaller district would offer the freedom to create smaller class sizes, because of fewer students per school and stable to slightly declining enrollments.
There's also a chance a new district could benefit from economies of scale, supporters say. A former Colorado school funding method gave more money to very small districts and those over 25,500 students, where legislative researchers there found economies of scale began to erode.
"It really boils down to some basic concepts of having an 80,000-student school district that is bureaucratic and difficult to work with vs. a district that would have half as many students," Cullimore said. "The reasons we are doing this is to create an opportunity to change."
"It's much easier to make changes with a small group than it is with a large group," said West Jordan Mayor David Newton, who favors forming a school district just for his own west-side city.
But a West Jordan succession could be risky, said City Councilwoman Melissa Johnson. As she sees it, that proposal is hinged on the belief the east side will break away. But what if the east-side vote fails?
"We will end up hurting our system of education as a response to something that we felt certain would happen and didn't, and we won't be able to stop it," she said.
Splitting Jordan School District is a prospect more damaging than promising, opponents say. For them, the question comes down to a practical matter: If it ain't broke, don't fix it or bust it trying.
When Shaw, a regional PTA treasurer and resident of east-side township White City, first heard someone talk of splitting Jordan School District a few years ago, "I thought they were making a joke."
She's always had her complaints readily addressed, her input welcomed at school and district offices, and several opportunities to become more involved in decision-making.
"I can't understand why someone would want to split up a high-functioning, well-running school district like Jordan," said Shaw, spokeswoman for Friends of Jordan School District.
Education Week says the district has the highest graduation rate among the nation's 50 largest school districts; Forbes magazine says it offers the nation's second-best big city education. It offers top-notch programs to students with severe, multiple disabilities and accelerated students, including an International Baccalaureate program.
"We're giving kids incredible opportunities that will definitely be questioned and potentially jeopardized if the district does divide," Board of Education President J. Dale Christensen said.
Money is an issue. Startup costs for three new school districts could total $144 million, according to feasibility studies cited in an online school district Q&A on the split. While an east school district could cut property taxes by 26 percent, they'd rise by 35 percent in the remaining school district and by 42 percent in a West Jordan district to maintain current funding levels, Christensen said.
Transition teams will divvy special programs among old and new districts, but district spokesman Melinda Colton foresees disagreement. "I'm not sure that we'll share programs what's the point of splitting if you're going to share programs?"
The district's AaaAAA bond rating also is likely to become damaged in a district split, according to testimony before a legislative task force examining smaller school districts legislation. That would mean taxpayers fork out more cash for higher interest rates on borrowed money a significant prospect considering the west side needs 21 new schools to accommodate growth and 14 major school renovations by 2016 (15 buildings and five5 renovations should West Jordan break away).
"This is the most critical decision that has ever faced Jordan School District, and it has no basis ... other than from some people who have had some bad experiences and are powerful and have a powerful voice in the community," Christensen said.
"People simply haven't had an opportunity to be educated on this and really understand the significance of what we're talking about here," he said. "It's very worrisome. It's not in the best interest of kids or taxpayers."
Also involved are other west-side residents, if only by default. State law allows them no vote in these matters.Herriman city leaders and some district residents filed a lawsuit alleging that violates constitutionally guaranteed voting rights. A U.S. District Court judge in Salt Lake, and more recently, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, denied their petition to halt the election until their case is heard.
Contributing: Amy Choate-Nielsen E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]