Class Dismissed 

It’s not over ’til it’s over. But parents have learned hard lessons over the imminent closing of two elementary schools.

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Then-president of the Salt Lake City Board of Education, Joel Briscoe, called himself the “to-go guy.” “I want a decision tonight,” he told the board at its June 19, 2001, meeting, the night it voted 4-3 to close both Lowell and Rosslyn Heights elementary schools. “I seem to be the to-go guy. I am the one to make that decision and get it done.”

And get it done was just what the board did. Three members—Karen Derrick, Ila Rose Fife and Laurel Young—voted to shutter Rosslyn Heights. Three different members—Kathy Black, Jan Clemmer and Clifford Higbee—voted to close only Lowell Elementary. Only Briscoe voted to close both schools. In the minds of a lot of parents today, there’s no doubt that the past board president’s singular vote is the prime reason he no longer sits on the Salt Lake City Board of Education.

Discussion about the possible closing of three east-side Salt Lake City schools started bubbling up in November 2000. Already some parents were nervous. In meetings to follow there would be two ties of three votes each. The board could choose to close Lowell or Hawthorne elementary schools. The other vote chose between closing Rosslyn Heights or Beacon Heights elementary schools. Briscoe cast tie-breaking votes for each decision. And parents felt he’d given no other reason behind his votes other than to finish the job and move on.

“I was shocked,” remembers Jacob Stringham, a parent with a child at Rosslyn Heights.

“He changed his mind in about 20 minutes because he wanted to go home. He said, ‘Let’s get this done with,’ not, ‘Let’s visit this issue again,’ or ‘Let’s think about this some more.’ Just ‘Let’s get it over with,” remembers Dawn Ann Bullough, a teacher at Lowell Elementary.

Briscoe declined to be interviewed for this article. Perhaps that’s to be expected, since his fateful votes resulted in two lawsuits that have since been joined into one. After the board reaffirmed its vote to close both Lowell and Rosslyn Heights elementary schools three months later, the parents of Lowell Elementary formed a group called “Save Our Schools” and filed suit in 3rd District Court against the board to prevent Lowell’s closure. Parents hoping to stop Rosslyn Heights’ similar fate filed suit last January.

In the minds of board members, their vote was necessitated both by changing student population dynamics and a shrinking education budget for the Salt Lake City School District. In the minds of the affected parents, the board’s decision shone as one of the worst examples of public school policy in recent memory. Not since 1996, when the board effectively barred gay-straight student clubs from meeting at public high schools by banning all high school extracurricular clubs, has a vote by the Salt Lake City Board of Education caused such heated commotion.

In fact, it’s safe to say that until the fateful vote, a lot of parents had never given the composition of the board much thought. Not any more. Both Briscoe and past board President Karen Derrick lost their seats last November. The only other member up for reelection, Laurel Young, managed to hang on. Catalyst publisher John DeJong took Briscoe’s place, while physician Doug Nelson assumed Derrick’s. But parents quietly concede that, even if another vote were held today, the new board would most likely stand by its predecessor’s decision.

So, on to court it is. But the wheels of justice haven’t been kind to parents hoping for relief. Third District Court Judge Sandra Peuler has been cautious about questioning the board’s wisdom, it being an elected body and all. Most distressing to some was Peuler’s contention that the two school closings must be joined into one case, even if many parents believe there are vastly different issues at stake. Rosslyn Heights is primarily a neighborhood school, serving children who live close to its boundaries. Lowell, meanwhile, is widely regarded as one of the Salt Lake Valley’s most successful “magnet” schools, its many specialized programs attracting students from beyond its neighborhood boundaries. Rosslyn Heights parents want to see their children’s school remain open because of its safe residential location and because it hosts a coveted program for severely disabled students. Lowell parents, on the other hand, see their children’s school as a robust example of how public school choice can benefit the entire school district.

No matter. Despite the fact that Judge Peuler combined the two cases and then dismissed all the parents’ claims except one, the issue won’t die. It’s been a tit-for-tat legal battle, with the Lowell and Rosslyn Heights contingents holding on for dear life. This April, Judge Peuler denied the parents a preliminary injunction keeping the schools open for the next school year. But she also denied the Salt Lake City School District a request for summary judgment or the dismissal of parents’ claims. The district must still defend its board’s decision against the claim that members failed to consider its own written policy, called FLA (each letter stands for a section in the board policy book), which outlines proper considerations and procedures before a school can be closed. Barring any requests for delay by the Salt Lake City School District, the trial is scheduled to begin June 18.

For many outside the somewhat limited circles of the two elementary schools, the issue might seem like a case of affluent, east-side parents defending local turf. After all, if there’s one message the board has repeatedly sent out in its own defense, it’s that two east-side schools must be shuttered to shift limited costs toward the west side, where the student population is growing at a much faster rate. But whether this was a decision driven by the unforgiving demands of a limited education budget or the haphazard, last-minute decisions of an ill-informed school board, it could be a harbinger of bigger issues to come and carry lessons well beyond the borders of the Salt Lake City School District. In a state slated to add 100,000 more students to the public school system by the end of the decade, and in the face of an ever-dwindling education budget, more than a few other state school boards might want to pay attention to the history of this decision. Whether you side with the parents, or the Salt Lake City School Board, it’s a study in how to make—or not make—painful decisions.

Aroadside view of Lowell Elementary School’s playground was a study in irony. Even though the elementary school’s administration had started packing for the expected move, it didn’t dampen children’s spirits. At the May 30 school carnival, children climbed mock walls, bounced about in inflatable huts, played ball and watched adult jugglers. It was their parents who struggled to keep a smile.

An Avenues fixture for decades, the Lowell Elementary School at 134 N. D St. opened its doors in 1964. Like many area elementary schools, it was named after an American literary figure. In this case, that would be James Russell Lowell, a Harvard professor of languages and literature, Bostonian, and founding editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. On the last day of the 2002-2003 school year, this June 11, Lowell’s legacy could see its last full day of classes. If it closes for good, all students will be transferred to Hawthorne Elementary School at 1675 S. 600 East.

Twenty years ago, the school jump-started one of the Salt Lake Valley’s first Extended Learning Programs (ELP), a regimen for advanced students in kindergarten through sixth grade. It wasn’t a slam-dunk success, partly because students from beyond Lowell’s boundaries were seen as intruding and disrupting the equilibrium of neighborhood student life. Tempers often boiled, and it took a long while before the politics of it calmed down. Today, Lowell hosts 190 students in its ELP program. Another of Lowell’s educational hallmarks, the Continuous Progress Program (CPP), required the same kind of adjustments from students, administration, teachers and parents before it too became part of the school’s unique make-up. Unlike ELP, CPP allows students to move up or down academic levels in an atmosphere of intense collaboration between teachers. In certain educational circles, it’s the most valuable curriculum there is for meeting individual student needs. And it’s completely site-based—unique to Lowell, since it’s not district sanctioned, even if it is district funded. Today, 12 full-time teachers instruct 200 children from within Lowell’s district boundaries and 130 children from outside in CPP.

For Heather Bennett, who has two children at Lowell, that kind of chemistry isn’t something that’s so easily closed down and moved elsewhere. Good educational programs take years of fine-tuning, and schools that accomplish a record of success deserve to stay put.

In her mind, Lowell’s success is earned. When the Utah Legislature opened the gates of public school choice in 1993, it allowed parents to examine their district’s schools for the best in public offerings and send their children where they saw fit—providing there was room. Today, it’s estimated that at least 3,800 students attend schools outside their neighborhood boundaries. Lowell—along with Wasatch and Beacon Heights Elementary schools—has one of the highest “choice populations” of students in the Salt Lake Valley. That, said Bennett, is because it’s a good school. And you don’t put the closed sign on a good school.

Part of the debate surrounds what a “fully enrolled” school is. When the Salt Lake City Board of Education crunched its numbers for projected school enrollment, it stressed where students lived. In other words, it gave preference to neighborhood schools over choice “magnet” schools. The parents, meanwhile, wanted to hear from board members who realized that today’s parents think beyond the boundaries of neighborhood. For a good education at a quality school, some parents will drive their students beyond the neighborhood. In the eyes of the Salt Lake City School District, Lowell isn’t fully enrolled with neighborhood kids. But it’s fully enrolled if you count students outside the boundaries who show up for Lowell’s unique educational programs.

For some parents, Lowell’s success is a simple matter of respect—something board members have failed to express. But beyond respect, Bennett still wants to hear the board explain its decision in a convincing, ordered manner. She’s yet to hear it and knows she may never hear it. Between June 2001 and September 2001, she attended every board meeting. She’s talked formerly with every school Salt Lake City School District superintendent. She, like so many parents, pleaded with the board to make an extensive study of their decision. Instead, she’s heard a board and district litany about how all its schools are good schools.

“The board looked at the number of students within the school boundaries—they were focused only on where students were living. But for parents, the biggest elephant in the room the board ignored was where kids are actually attending school,” said Bennett. “For me this is about the right of parents, teachers and students to work and build the best possible school, then invite others to join them.

“The saddest thing about this is that district mechanisms are choosing not to advertise these schools. The district should be trumpeting the successes of schools like Lowell, Wasatch and Beacon Heights. Instead we get this bland pabulum coming out of their mouths about how all of our schools are good, rather than the virtues of the diversity these different schools offer. When we offer choice to people, they’re much more likely to become involved in schools. If you offer people a choice the level of commitment to schools is greater. These aren’t controversial claims.”

Except at the Salt Lake City School District, which must wrestle with a shrinking budget and wider concerns beyond two east-side elementary schools. District arguments for closing the schools are well-known by now: Closing them will save the district $500,000. Salt Lake City School Board Chair Clifford Higbee said Lowell’s ELP program will do just fine with the move to Hawthorne if parents show the same level of involvement as they did at Lowell. And CPP, while unique to Lowell, isn’t a total loss either—if parents can convince other teachers to re-establish it at some other school.

“I think the parents are looking after their schools and their children. The district has to look at the good of 25,000 students and not just 300 or so students at one school,” Higbee said. “I don’t believe the building itself has anything to do with the program or the people or how those programs function. It’s not the building or location that makes these programs work. I think the real challenge now is that, if the judge rules in our favor, the parents should jump in and do everything they can to make the move work. And the district will do everything we can to make it successful.”

For a local example in school closure, many Lowell and Rosslyn Heights parents have looked back to another time when the Salt Lake City School District decided to close a school. In 1988, that school was South High School, which today operates as an extension of Salt Lake Community College.

At that time as well, parents held rallies opposing South’s closure. Now, the process behind South High’s closure is being held as a model for how the board should have gone about making its decision to close the two elementary schools. Back then, the board formed a citizens’ committee to help inform its decision. The committee was given a year to examine the situation, including other options. An independent consultant was also hired. When the Utah Supreme Court reviewed all the steps taken toward South High’s closure, it ruled in favor of the process.

“In that case, the Supreme Court looked at what the school board had done and said it was appropriate,” said Paul Durham, attorney for parents fighting to keep Lowell open.

It’s a process that stands in contrast to the steps leading up to the board’s decision to close the two elementary schools. In this case, a committee was formed, but it took most of its directions from the board and was allowed only six weeks to study the situation. Most tellingly, the board had previously decided on the necessity of closing schools before the advisory committee was formed.

“They gave us population numbers, traffic numbers, resident numbers. They would not allow us to look at things like money, which was very interesting, because this whole thing came about because of money,” said Stringham, who sat on the committee. “When they shut down South High, they formed a committee and said, ‘This is what is going on with our schools, study it for one year and tell us what your recommendation is.’ In our situation, they came to us and said, ‘You will in six weeks tell us what schools, from those that are east of I-15, should close.’”

Then there was a short-lived debate over the veracity of the Salt Lake City School District’s numbers, the data that drove its closure decision. The district presented evidence, using data from 1987, to show how it lost hundreds of students from its east-side schools. According to district spokesman Jason Olsen, those east-side schools lost anywhere from 1,200 to 1,700 students. And the east side is set to lose even more as the west-side student population explodes. Furthermore, the district gives more weight to residential “neighborhood” enrollment than it does “choice” enrollment. That’s because resident populations are more stable.

“Choice changes over time. You have to look at resident population to say where the kids are living. Choice fluctuates more quickly than does residence,” said Higbee.

Arron Fogelson, a University of Utah math professor with a child at Lowell, thought it might be a good idea to check out these numbers himself. A team of three other statisticians—Karen Change, Richard Kerber, and Elizabeth O’Brien—joined in. What they discovered was that the district uses a method of projection that works well for predicting school district populations in the next five years or projecting an individual school’s population in the next year. But when used to predict the population of an individual school for the next five years, the data gives a wide range of error.

“They are using the estimates as facts, because it had worked for other purposes, and they turn out to be off by a large number of students,” Fogelson said.

Indeed, running school district data on student populations in 1989 through the district’s model turned out predicted school populations for 1995 that hardly matched actual differences in population between that six-year span. The margin of error was about 25 percent.

“The west-side school population definitely has grown, and the east hasn’t really grown. But that’s a monolithic view of things,” Fogelson said. “There are individual regions in the east where school populations have actually grown, including around the Lowell area, which U.S. Census data shows, but the school district refuses to even look at census data. It’s refused to look at the census data for two years now.

“I think that this is a prime example of how abysmal the decision-making process of the school board has been over the past three years. Their decisions are based on preconceived notions, exclusion of verifiable and real information, and refusal to take input from reliable and credible sources other than district personnel,” Fogelson continued.

Bennett believes the board decision, and ensuing wrath of parents who put so much time and energy into their schools, is part of a national debate. One school of thought holds that a school district cannot build another school to accommodate changing populations until one is closed in turn. Another school of thought wants to look at the situation more creatively, less mathematically. This is a national debate because, given the current drop in state funds nationwide, money for education is extremely tight. What forced the issue locally, some say, was the push to retrofit and air condition Salt Lake City’s many schools. In May 1999, Salt Lake City voters passed a $136 million bond promising construction of two new schools on the west side and the replacement of 14 elementary schools on the east side. But the board wound up changing its plans soon after the bond passed. Instead, it would build three new schools on the west side and close two east side schools. For parents who voted for the bond, this seemed like a cruel bait-and-switch.

As the board repeatedly praised the $500,000 in savings that the closings would reap, parents pointed out that that savings amounted to a paltry 1.13 percent off of the district’s maintenance and operation costs. Surely our children are worth that much, parents thought. Or are they? Dialogue between parents and the Salt Lake City School District quickly reached a state of diminishing returns. The more people talked, the worse matters grew. Parents simply weren’t satisfied with answers that board members provided.

Lowell’s and Rosslyn Heights’ last stand rests in the FLA policy the board was supposed to have followed in considering its decision to close the schools. One attorney for the parents of Rosslyn Heights, Mark O. Morris, said he discovered during deposition that three board members, including Higbee and Briscoe, claimed ignorance of the 30-year-old district policy. The policy spells out six criteria for consideration when closing a school is proposed. They include keeping neighborhood schools as close to students as economically possible, considering student safety while traveling to schools and placing students in efficient and educationally functional buildings.

“What we were always asking was that they just do the process of closure right, not that they refrain from closing Lowell altogether,” Bennett said. “Looking over this FLA criteria, I can name several reasons for why Lowell shouldn’t be closed. But what we want them to do is go through this process methodically, then have the decency to come before the public and state their reasons for why Lowell, or any of these schools, should be closed.”

Higbee is honest and adamant that the board made its decision in good faith, whether or not the FLA policy was foremost on its mind. “Anything that was in the district’s policy was followed whether or not the policy was raised specifically,” he said. “There were some of us who remember it, and others of us who don’t remember it. Whether it was read specifically, everything in the policy was followed.”

Some see this as a time to stop hoping that the two schools might be saved and start focusing energies on preserving the Continuous Progress Program, wherever it may end up. Doug Nelson, one of the newest members of the board, wants to ensure that it’s not abandoned.

“It’s not just the 530 students in Lowell that it will affect but other school districts that Lowell’s Continuous Progress Program might have been a model for,” Nelson said.

After CPP was fully installed at Lowell Elementary in 1991, student scores on tests increased remarkably. Nelson compared the board’s attitude toward the program to a hiker in the desert who throws away his canteen to lighten the load. He believes CPP can be installed in other schools, with similar results.

Somewhat lost in the debate is the unique character of Rosslyn Heights, a neighborhood school that is no less loved and no less staunchly defended. It can’t boast CPP or ELP programs, but parent Lori Sharp, who has two children there, isn’t about to see it go quietly into the night. She could talk forever about how its residential location makes it safe for children and about how its single-story layout makes it ideal for the handicapped children who attend. What she shares in common with the Lowell parents is sheer bewilderment about the Salt Lake City School Board of Education’s decision.

“There were a lot of red flags that came up when this decision went down. And once the community started asking questions, they [the school board] dug in their heels,” Sharp said. “The district still has to maintain the building and pay the staff, so it’s hard to see what savings they’re getting by closing the schools.”

She has a point of sorts. In order to finish the huge round of rebuilding and retrofitting it hopes to complete by 2009, the Salt Lake City School District will use both schools as educational way stations. Rosslyn Heights will be filled by students from Dilworth Elementary as they wait for their school to be rebuilt. Lowell will be used as a grade-school hotel for Beacon Heights Elementary students waiting for their school to be torn down and rebuilt. The school year after that, students from Bonneville Elementary will be at Lowell while they wait for construction to finish on their new school. And so it goes, as students move around like chess pieces.

“We were closing those schools whether or not we were going to rebuild or refit other schools. It just so happens that having these two schools allows some flexibility to move and transfer students,” Higbee said.

Bennett likes the fact that the district takes an active approach to the building and reconstructing of schools. Still, must construction take precedence over other educational concerns?

“Why you would look at the buildings first before the programs is a mystery to me, but the board voted that they wanted to rebuild the schools and make that a priority,” she said with a tone of resignation. “After all of this is over, there are some of us who plan to write a book about this whole experience.”

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