The Salt Lake Board of Education suddenly canceled its public hearing Tuesday night on Superintendent John W. Bennion's open enrollment proposal, but Bennion remains guardedly optimistic that a compromise can be reached on the issue to ease the lingering hostility over high school boundary changes.
"There is a lot of dialogue going on. It is my impression that there is genuine interest. People are hearing each other, understanding each other's point of view, recognizing that the picture is not black and white. I think legitimate progress is being made," the superintendent said.Bennion said that although several ideas have been discussed among community groups since he made his proposal to phase in open enrollment two weeks ago, none has emerged yet as the compromise that everyone will support. He also said he never intended for his proposal to be firm, but offered it to generate discussion.
His comments came after the board canceled the hearing on his plan, which would phase in open enrollment over two years and was an attempt to appease those who are still unhappy with the new high school boundaries.
It was a hearing that some east-side parents pushing for open enrollment said they intended to boycott.
Two weeks ago, the board decided to listen to citizen comments Tuesday night. But only three hours before the meeting's scheduled 7 p.m. start the board decided to cancel it. School district staff scurried to call the 75 people who had signed up to speak.
The calling, plus the grapevine between interested community groups, was effective because only a handful showed up at Hawthorne Elementary at the announced time. District personnel gave out short printed statements saying "there has been significant progress in private discussions by citizen groups seeking to find ways to meet the needs of all members of the district," so the meeting was canceled to "give these sensitive discussions more time."
What the statement didn't mention was an open letter that was delivered Tuesday afternoon to the board, which was meeting in executive session with Del Nykamp, the out-ofstate consultant who was hired to help board members communicate better with each other.
The consultant, in fact, played a key role in getting the board to call off the meeting. "He felt that this way wouldn't help the process," said Bennion. Board Vice President Stephen Boyden called the consultant's advice very helpful.
"It's (the hearing) off because of the letter," said D. Vincent, one of the 12 east-side parents whose names were listed at the bottom of the letter. (One man called the Deseret News late Tuesday night to complain that his wife's name was included without her consent and they had never read the letter.)
The letter said the parents would boycott the hearing because it would serve little purpose. The speakers were unfairly weighted to those "opposing any changes to the current `Berlin Wall' attendance policy," the letter said.
"It was an open letter to all of the board members. We want our children to be more than numbers; we don't want them to be test scores any longer. They are human beings. For some kids to be able to concentrate academically, they have to be with their friends," Vincent said.
Bennion admitted that the letter was a factor in the meeting's cancellation, although it wasn't the overriding one. The board members were also concerned that the hearing might further polarize the various community groups trying to work out a compromise.
"The concern was the language used at the hearing would be filled with confrontational phrases that could very much inhibit this delicate effort to try and bridge the different viewpoints in the city. Aggressive, confrontational rhetoric is not what is needed in trying to find a compromise. If that is what is going on in a public hearing, it would retard the (compromise) effort, if not destroy it," the superintendent said.
He said that board members are working for greater unity among themselves and the community. "They haven't given up hope, but they recognize it won't be easy," Bennion said.
The outcome of the ongoing negotiations may also play a role in the superintendent's plans. His contract expires June 30, but board members have told the Deseret News that the board hasn't discussed the contract's renewal yet.
When asked about his feeling for continuing in the job, Bennion replied, "It will depend on if some accommodation can be reached. I don't think it's healthy to have such strong, negative feelings that now exist in the city. The future of the district, as well as my own future, may hinge on what they can work out."