SOUTH JORDAN — The mayors of two Utah cities considering a split from the Jordan School District left a recent meeting with school officials optimistic that the district would be left intact.
West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe said the July 14 meeting — which included more than three hours of occasionally heated negotiation — was a positive step toward reaching a resolution, and South Jordan Mayor David Alvord said things were in "great shape."
"I think we’re going to be able to resolve this without putting it on the ballot," Alvord said.
But South Jordan City Councilman Chuck Newton, seen by many as the chief architect of the potential split, said residents have a right to weigh in on the issue independent of any agreement reached by mayors and the Jordan School Board.
"My preferred outcome is to place it on the ballot and let the people make the choice. I think that’s what it really comes down to," Newton said.
Past, present and future
Talk of a district split has been simmering for some time but reached a boiling point after the most recent legislative session when Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, sponsored HB84, a bill that would limit a city's ability to create a new school district.
The bill ultimately failed, but South Jordan city leaders say it made them wonder whether now might be their one and only chance to consider an independent city school district.
"That threat is still there," Newton said. "To me it’s kind of backing us into a corner."
In May, the South Jordan City Council commissioned a feasibility study to look at how the city would be affected by withdrawing from the school district, a legal requirement that precedes placing the question of a split before voters.
But the decision to split is based on more than just opportunity. Newton and his colleagues on the City Council point to a lack of collaboration between district and municipal leaders, and worry about a looming storm of tax increases.
The district has struggled to keep up with rapid enrollment growth on the Salt Lake Valley's west side, prompting an infamous and ultimately unsuccessful $495 million bond request for new buildings last year.
Those buildings are still needed, Newton said, and school officials — or rather, residents — will soon see a decline in funding from county equalization funds that are set to expire in 2016.
"While I understand the need to be good neighbors and work together, at the same time I believe we need to put it on the ballot and let the residents decide what they want to do," Newton said. "Because after all, it’s their tax money, and they’re going to get hit pretty hard, no doubt about it."
The school board does not deny that the district faces pressing financial needs. But board vice president Susan Pulsipher said those challenges are a reality independent of how many school districts exist in the southwest portion of Salt Lake County.
"We live in an area where there is rapid building," Pulsipher said, "and whether you have a South Jordan School District or the entire Jordan School District as it exists today, we have growth and there is going to be a need for future schools."
Fate of many decided by a few
City leaders in neighboring cities have been less amused by the antics of South Jordan.
Elected officials in West Jordan have publicly stated that they are only considering a split of their own as a response or reaction to South Jordan's threats. And during a recent West Jordan City Council meeting, council members made several pointed criticisms that the district's future was being threatened by a few individuals in South Jordan.
West Jordan City Councilman Jeff Stoker said some of the demands presented to the district by municipal leaders are "over the top" and "overreaching," particularly considering that local school boards answer to their constituents and report to the State School Board, not cities.
"I don’t know if (South Jordan city leaders) are just trying to get some concessions out of the school district or if they’re looking to follow through with splitting, but they’ve managed to get all the other mayors involved in this," Stoker said.
Some of the concerns are valid, he said, particularly a need for greater communication to avoid school property being purchased in prime commercial development areas.
But others, like the now-softened suggestions that mayors be seated on the dais during school board meetings and be included in district personnel decisions, go too far, he said.
"I think those are straight out of line," Stoker said. "I don’t think, whether you’re a mayor or city council member or anything, you don’t have the right to go into another organization and demand personnel changes. That’s just bad form."
Stoker said he hopes the discussions will prompt positive change in the future, and he doesn't anticipate a split gaining traction among voters in either city.
But he also said the politics of the split have begun to interfere with the district's ability to focus on the needs of children, and he worries about the effect a district division could have on more expensive education programs, such as special education.
"I’m trying to make sure that whether it’s this child or that child, that they’re going to get the attention they need," Stoker said, "that they’re going to get the education they need without having some council meeting ruin that for them."
Members of the school board have also suggested that the ongoing tumult has interfered with their ability to address academic issues.
Pulsipher said the negotiations, meetings and discussions with city leaders have definitely taken up time that could have been spent on other matters, but she sees those conversations as necessary to Jordan's future.
"I guess the issue is: Was it necessary? And I think it was necessary," she said. "I feel like a collaborative process with all our community, including the cities and the business area community, will enhance the education of our children and in the end will save taxpayer dollars."
South Jordan City Councilman Mark Seethaler said the recent meeting between the district's mayors is evidence that the concerns are not just held by one or two "loose cannons" in South Jordan.
"It’s not just Chuck Newton’s problems. It’s not just personality issues or a spitting contest," Seethaler said. "It’s legitimate issues that five mayors and their respective organizations have agreed to execute on with respect to needs that we have as cities to be full partners with the school district."
Council members in other cities vary in their perspectives and experience with the district, he said, but the accusation that South Jordan is gaming or pressuring its neighbors ignores the real financial, property and communication issues that need to be resolved.
"I’m not interested in a pound of flesh," Seethaler said. "I’m not interested in identifying or labeling who is right, who is wrong, etc. I really want to see all of the cities come together with the school district and make some advances to re-establish relationships."
Newton said there are some council members in neighboring cities who are simply "clueless" to what's going on in the district.
"They’ve been just kind of AWOL on the issues," he said. "I would state definitively that those comments are coming from not a lack of concern but a lack of knowledge and understanding because they haven’t been involved in the issues and haven’t been close to it. They just see it as a split/don’t split (question), and they don’t understand the underlying economics of what’s happening."
Splitting the baby
With or without a split, Alvord said he intends to fight against any future attempts to limit a city's ability to create a new school district. An inability to separate could lead to abuses by school leaders, the South Jordan mayor said.
"I think it makes sure the proper attention is given to each member city of a district, knowing that any of them could walk away if they’re not taken care of," he said.
Alvord reiterated that if South Jordan were to split, it would be due to the wishes of the city's voters and not the whims of a few individuals in leadership. The City Council can place the question on the ballot — and the deadline to do so is Aug. 5 — but he said a split would require "the votes of thousands."
Alvord also said the discussions that have resulted from the threat of a split are already yielding positive results. He said he has noticed a more attentive school board throughout negotiations, and he believes this to be the beginning of a better relationship between educators and municipalities.
"It’s not comfortable for a district to endure cities threatening to leave, but in some ways it’s healthy. It’s democratic. It’s politics," Alvord said. "It’s kind of how things get done to make sure that cities are paid attention to and that we don’t have bullies at the district."
Newton also said he's optimistic about the future based on the current negotiations. The Jordan School Board has agreed to provide reports on its finances and property holdings, and to make a greater effort to include mayors in future planning.
"The efforts that South Jordan has made has taken the school district further than it ever wanted to go in the past, and we appreciate their responding to us in a positive manner," the city councilman said.
But Newton added that the preliminary findings from the city's feasibility study suggest South Jordan could benefit from independence, with its current property revenues able to meet the city's immediate school construction needs and potentially allow for a decrease in taxes.
As for how he would vote on the question of a district split, Newton said he has not yet made a decision and would need to study the issue further.
"There’s a lot of people out there that have been assuming all along that I’m for the split because I’ve talked about the need to take a look at the split and pushed, pushed, pushed, pushed, pushed to deal with this issue," he said. "My call for the split was really to get it onto the ballot to let the residents decide and to raise the issues to see if we could get somewhere."
Pulsipher said the school district intends to deliver on the requests made by the district's mayors. But she expressed a hope that the issue would be resolved without being placed on a ballot, which would launch campaigns for and against the split and could undo the progress made by school officials and city leaders.
"Anytime you have an item go on a ballot, you’re going to have campaigning on both sides, and you have feelings expressed and aired on both sides," Pulsipher said, "and that can be good, but it also could cause contention. We’re trying to create an environment of collaboration, and putting an item on the ballot would probably not work toward collaboration. It would work against it."