SALT LAKE CITY — Making good on her promise to amend the state's school turnaround law following the Granite School Board's vote to close Oquirrh Hills Elementary School in Kearns, Sen. Karen Mayne on Tuesday introduced SB245.
SB245 would require school districts to give students' parents at least 120 days notice before closing a school or changing the boundaries of the school. The notice also applies to schools that would be affected by accompanying boundary changes. In addition, school districts and charter school administrators would need to give the area's governing council and mayor notice.
"If you're going to close it, let's give these people time because everybody's working, grandma's tending. … It's just the mechanics of a family's need to change so that they can handle a change in where their kids go to school," Mayne, D-West Valley City, said.
It also would require school boards to hear public comment on a proposed school closure or boundary change during "at least two public local school board meetings."
Oquirrh Hills Elementary School will close at the end of the school year. The school community was informed of the pending closure at a meeting at the school in mid-December, and on Jan. 8, the school board voted to close the school following a public hearing.
Mayne took issue with the district and board's handling of the closure of the school, which after three years was unable to exit the state's school turnaround program.
"You don't tell the community with a handful of days (within a vote of whether to close a school). That's not how we do it," Mayne told the board.
The bill also requires school districts or charter school boards to give annual notice to school communities, including municipal leaders, when a school is in turnaround status.
The information is to include the school's goals, benchmarks and timetable in the school's turnaround plan and its progress.
It also would include information for how the community can support the school and students "inside and outside the classroom."
The legislation does not impact the state turnaround program, Mayne said.
"The legislation was not clear or transparent of how to close a school, how to be transparent with the community. It's just a clear exit way so that everybody is in the same ballpark. It was so traumatic. It's a small community, long roots. I was raised there right by the school. I think the district mishandled it not knowing the blowback that would happen," she said.
Kearns Metro Township Mayor Kelly Bush said she worked with Mayne on the legislation because of her concerns about transparency and accountability over Oquirrh Hills' closure.
The passage of SB245 would be "a good start in addressing the concerns that we have. The transparency between school districts and communities is key to the success of these schools. This bill holds the districts accountable in opening the communication with the people and involving families, community members and elected officials from the beginning," she said.
Turnaround schools are those in the lowest 3 percent of student achievement statewide as measured by year-end standardized tests.
Schools in turnaround receive grants and assistance from experts intended to increase student achievement. The school forms a turnaround committee that includes parents, educators, a school administrator and the local school board representative.
Oquirrh Hills' school grade was a "D" in 2015, according to state assessments. Three years later, it was an "F."
According to a letter to the Granite School Board, Oquirrh Hills "did not grow sufficiently to either exit turnaround status or qualify for a two-year extension," wrote Superintendent Martin Bates.
Oquirrh Hiils is one of the older elementary schools in the school district dating back to 1957. The building may be used to temporarily house students as the school district rebuilds schools in the area.
According to the Utah State Board of Education's Oct. 1 headcount, Oquirrh Hills' enrollment has dropped 14 percent since October 2015, when it enrolled 392 students. This fall, the enrollment was 336, making it one of the smallest elementary schools in Granite District.
These were also factors the board considered as it considered closing the school.
Mayne said there may be times that school closures are necessary, but there needs to be a transparent process.1 comment on this story
"This a tool so as time goes on, those who are in turnaround, which is a valued program, that there's just a piece about transparency and clarity so the school, the population and the community leaders are all on the same page," she said.
Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said the school district is well-aware of the concerns Mayne intends to address with HB245.
"Regardless of the outcomes of this bill, (we) intend to enhance our communications process and procedures to improve these outcomes in the future," Horsley said in a statement.