3 criticisms auditors have of SLC’s school board

A report released last week highlighted several problems, from declining student enrollments to poor test scores.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents are taking their Escalante elementary school students to Salt Lake City for class on January 25, 2021. The district’s school board came under fire from state auditors for releasing an exam on December 13, 2022. According to the report, the board failed to properly close schools when it needed to and failed to help students improve their standardized test scores .

State leaders responded with concern and reproach last week to an audit of the Salt Lake City school district that detailed the failure of school board members to address ongoing problems with declining enrollment and falling test scores.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said he constantly hears complaints about the district despite living in Davis County, and that prompted lawmakers to call for the review. “This is not a good test,” he said during a committee hearing on Tuesday’s findings.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, added there were “some worrying findings.” And Senate President Stuart Adams urged the school board, “You can do better than that.”

Here’s a breakdown of the three main issues reviewers highlighted.

1. Not closing schools as enrollment falls has meant relying on taxpayers to defray costs.

The biggest concern has been that the Salt Lake City School Board has done nothing to address the district’s long-declining student enrollment.

Enrollments in the capital’s schools have fallen for eight consecutive years. In the last five years, it’s been a 13% drop, or about 3,000 students, to the current total of 19,447 students. High real estate prices, new charter schools, and a declining birth rate have all contributed to the problem.

And it’s felt most strongly in elementary schools.

[Read more: Millions wasted as Salt Lake City school board fails to close elementaries]

Despite discussions in 2019 about the closure of Bennion Elementary, which currently has the lowest capacity of any school in the districts at 25%, the board voted to postpone the closure.

The board again agreed to delay the action this year after hiring consultants to study declining enrollments. Members have postponed a decision until February next year.

The auditors say the district would have to close six elementary schools just to reach 75% building occupancy. Every year when it doesn’t, it spends an unnecessary $3.6 million.

But the audit also says that instead of addressing the issue, the board pushed ahead with rebuilding three elementary schools and is now considering rebuilding two high schools.

To cover the deficits and prop up open schools that audit said should be closed, the board has relied on taxpayers. It has approved two property tax increases since 2016 and raised about $40 million from Salt Lake City homeowners, though data showed a drop in enrollments.

The audit says these hikes would not have been necessary “if the district had timely adjusted its number of elementary schools and decided not to rebuild.”

Much of the money also goes toward operating costs for emptying schools and administrative salaries. The audit also states that the district is overstaffed in senior positions.

The board responded to the review with a letter that it would now review possible school closures annually.

2. Board dysfunction gets in the way.

The exam devotes a chapter to concerns that school board members don’t get along, sometimes act unethically, and interfere in the day-to-day operations of the school district.

The examiners begin by discussing concerns with the superintendent. The board hired Timothy Gadson in February 2021. Members then put him on leave before agreeing to a separation agreement that is set to leave him in October this year after around 15 months in office.

There have been allegations by board members that Gadson made improper travel to Arizona’s Grand Canyon University and concerns about several of his employments. But others have said he was expelled because of inherent racism; He was the district’s first black superintendent.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson III is pictured Tuesday, August 24, 2021.

The district board had previously fired its previous superintendent, Lexi Cunningham. One board member said that’s because she turned down the board’s request to fire several directors, including one who later received a year-long suspension from teaching for driving students home when he found them drunk on campus.

The audit notes, “By the time the district appoints a new superintendent in late 2022 or early 2023, the district will have had five superintendents in less than three years.” That includes two interim superintendents, including current chief Martin Bates.

In addition to these issues, the audit mentions board members writing profanity to one another. A former board member was also arrested and pleaded guilty to downloading and producing child pornography.

State auditors say board members also managed the district’s functions outside of their micromanaging roles.

The reviewers conclude, “These concerns were widespread enough in the district to indicate that beyond the specific allegations in this section, the district has an issue with how the SLCSD Board is perceived and the culture that created that perception Has.”

They recommend that board members be trained semi-annually on their policies to act ethically and support the superintendent rather than undermine the position.

3. The board is not focused on how to improve test scores.

The audit also says the district missed student test scores, which fell significantly in 2021 compared to 2019 with the pandemic.

While all schools dropped, the district fell lowest in its state peer group in math, down 26%, and in science, down 12.8% for standardized exams. The next-lowest school district fell 17% in math, leaving Salt Lake City nearly 10 percentage points behind.

A “majority of the district’s schools have not recovered to pre-pandemic performance levels,” the review said. This is particularly the case in low-income and more diverse schools.

Examiners believe this may have been due to expanded online learning in the district, as the school board voted to allow students to continue learning virtually in the fall of 2020 amid rising COVID levels. “In general, the performance levels of minority and high-poverty schools appear to have suffered more from distance learning,” the review said.

The school district wrote in its response that the exam should have included a better look at growth metrics, which track how well students are improving from year to year. These have improved in the district.

However, the auditors note that a school in the district should be a model for the future. Parkview Elementary, which has a diverse student body and is a low-income Title I school, has had great success in its end-of-year proficiency levels. The exam recognizes the collaboration at this school, which does not exist county-wide.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2022/12/19/3-criticisms-state-auditors-have/ 3 criticisms auditors have of SLC’s school board

Justin Scacco

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