‘Cover up’? Frustrated Utah lawmakers subpoena Alpine District leaders over school closure plans
As concerned parents are suing the Alpine School District over its plans to close schools, Utah lawmakers are looking to hear the district’s principal and school board presidents.
But Superintendent Shane Farnsworth and School Council President Sara Hacken sent others instead and failed to show up for a Thursday meeting of the Administrative Rules Review and General Oversight Committee. So the committee subpoenaed her — a rare move that requires her to appear in June.
“Very rarely does the legislature exercise the power to compel testimony, but it is clear that we have both prerogatives and that responsibility,” said Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, who chairs the committee. “It is the responsibility of the committee to seek information directly from the individuals responsible for the district’s actions.”
A group of 33 parents sued the county on April 28, alleging it violated state law for soliciting public opinion on closure decisions.
The superintendent and chief executive’s refusal to appear will lead to new school closure laws — which several Utah school districts are grappling with as their enrollments plummet, according to Senator Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi.
“Personally, I believe that the school district must be able to make difficult decisions to meet the overall needs of the entire student body,” said Anderegg. “But the fact that they’re not in the room answering those questions will lead to a series of laws, at least several bills, that will correct that.”
Until this year, state law provided a 120-day grace period before plans to close schools or change borders could be approved or implemented. A bill passed in the 2023 legislature changed this requirement to 90 days.
The process in Alpine
In November, voters in the Alpine School District rejected a $600 million bond that would have funded the construction of new schools. Subsequently, the school board voted to authorize a study to change enrollment limits for schools across the county to find an alternative solution to the dilapidated buildings and declining enrollment.
On December 8, they emailed parents and local authorities their intention to conduct the study. According to the parents’ lawsuit, the district has at times argued that communication began with the 120-day period.
However, the parents and their lawsuit point out that potential closures were not mentioned. The email states: “Study results may result in boundary changes that will affect some schools for the 2023 school year, while others may come into effect in 2024 or later. While the boundary changes may affect some schools across the county, parents need to be aware that we are reviewing all enrollments and associated boundaries.”
On February 28, the board voted to “formalize the study,” meaning staff were directed to begin the process of closing Sharon, Windsor, Valley View, Lindon and Lehi Elementary Schools effective the 2023-24 school year .
On March 1, the district sent an email notifying parents of the five planned school closures and included a link to an online public submissions form and a schedule for public hearings.
After several open days, the board then voted to exclude three elementary schools from the study until 2024, but to “continue the process” and potentially close Sharon and Valley View in 2023.
The legislature reacts
Lawmakers said it appeared the board made the decision before soliciting public opinion.
“It is clear from what has been presented that a decision has been made and that the open houses and such were now intended to inform the public of those decisions,” Bramble said.
Senator Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, agreed, saying it felt like a “cover-up.”
However, district officials said the board has not yet voted on school closures and an official vote will take place in June. The district sent three representatives to the meeting: Kraig Brinkerhoff, its general manager, its general manager, communications and its corporate administrator. One board member, Joylin Lincoln, attended via Zoom.
“That’s an interpretation that the decision was made beforehand,” said Brinkerhoff, the district attorney. “There are other interpretations that the decision has not yet been made.”
Senator Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, said the schedule didn’t fit.
“You’re kind of in a dilemma,” Brammer said. “They either voted to close that [Feb.] 28. and then took the action to do so in violation of the law, even under your December 8 timeframe because that is not 120 days, or you initiated the process and took all action to deal with the closure of schools to begin before there was a final vote on closing schools.”
Board member Lincoln said no decisions were made on February 28.
“Our goal has always been to be very transparent and keep the public informed throughout the process and gather more information to narrow our information,” Lincoln said. “(We) always try to provide information to the public as soon as we get it.”
Bramble explained that while the legislature has no punitive power over school boards and counties, its role in this matter is to ensure that state laws are sound and to make adjustments where there is ambiguity.
“If we don’t design the process so that parents and families who have made important life decisions about where their children go to school have the time to adjust and the skills to prepare…then we will succeed.” “Bringing this issue before the legislature over and over again,” Brammer said.
Bramble said the contributions from the superintendent and chief executive in June will allow committee members to better determine if there are any ambiguities within the law.
“What we need to understand is whether there are systemic issues with a law that need to be investigated? Personally, I’m not convinced of that yet,” said Bramble.
The two district heads may contest the subpoena due to ongoing litigation. The district has not yet submitted a response; The lawsuit will ask a judge to prevent the county from approving the currently proposed school closures and new boundaries until proceedings are resumed.
Alicia Alba, a mother who appeared at Thursday’s meeting and was one of the 33 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she had lost confidence in the Alpine School District.
“They must be held accountable,” Alba said. “Not only for the situation we are facing right now as these five schools are facing a possible closure, but also for all schools and all prospective students in our county and in other counties.” This shouldn’t be happening. This should not be the process. That’s not how they should handle things. You have to obey the law.”