Is a Utah city retaliating against a county that wants to close schools?

After three school closures in recent years, the city of Orem has redesignated all public school locations. Potential buyers need to take additional steps if they want to rehabilitate the property.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sharon Elementary School in Orem on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The Alpine School District is considering closing the school and the new zoning of the site gives the city council more control over potential buyers’ redevelopment plans.

If the Alpine School District closes a school in Orem – which is about to happen – it is required by state law to first offer the property to the city if it decides to sell it.

But after three school closures in recent years, Orem city officials wanted even stricter control over school properties they didn’t want to buy.

That’s why this month City Council members redesignated all public school sites as “Public Facility” zones. This will require potential buyers to have their redevelopment plans and new zoning approved by the Orem Planning Commission and City Council – a step not previously mandatory for former school sites.

“There is now a public process through the City Council,” said Jason Bench, Orem’s planning director. “Neighbors will be notified, so it’s possible [for] an open forum.”

The move comes at a contentious time as parents are suing the Alpine School District over its plans to close Sharon Elementary School in Orem and Valley View Elementary in Pleasant Grove, claiming the district has failed to comply with state statutes governing school closures held.

But since 2017, when Alpine’s school board voted to merge Hillcrest and Scera Park elementary schools into one school, tensions have been simmering over school closures in Orem. The decision prompted some city leaders to consider secession from the district.

The election fell to voters last November and 73% voted against the proposed split.

Orem resident Abe Sanderson, who opposed the rezoning at a May 16 city council meeting, said he believes the rezoning was an “indirect response” by city officials to the vote.

“It feels like retaliation,” Sanderson said. “There is potential for conflict with the Alpine school district.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sharon Elementary School in Orem on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The Alpine School District is considering closing the school and the new zoning of the site gives the city council more control over potential buyers’ redevelopment plans.

His opinion was shared by Orem councilor Tom Macdonald, who said at the meeting the city had not communicated its intentions to the Alpine School District in a timely manner.

Macdonald said his main concern was that prior to the meeting with the Alpine School District, the city sent out letters informing the public of its intentions to rezoning.

“My reservation was that if we could speak to the Alpine School District before posting, I could support this [the mailers] out and we didn’t do it,” Macdonald said. “We spoke to Alpine when it was already hot and in the box.”

Other council members clarified that discussions with the Alpine School District took place after the mailings had been sent but before they hit mailboxes.

Macdonald ultimately voted against the rededication. The vote was 6-1 in favor of the changes.

Council member Jeff Lambson said the decision had nothing to do with retaliation.

“Many of our citizens fear this is a ‘gotcha’ push against the Alpine School District, and if that is the case, we are ashamed,” Lambson said. “I don’t know what the future holds and I think it’s wise to put property aside because no more land will be built in Orem.”

Alpine School District officials have not spoken about the impact of the rezoning at public meetings and have not responded to a request for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.

City leaders purchased the site of the former Hillcrest Elementary School to build Hillcrest Park. The site of the former Polaris High School was sold to Utah Valley University and Alpine retains the site of the former Geneva Elementary.

The Alpine School District is currently evaluating new school boundaries and possible school closures after a proposed $595 million bond was not accepted by voters. Funds would have gone towards building new schools and repairing old schools with significant seismic needs.

According to a recent study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 12 of Orem’s 18 schools are at seismic risk, meaning they are at a higher risk of falling and injuring children in the event of an earthquake. In total, there are 30 schools with earthquake safety problems in the district.

The district has some tough decisions to make going forward.

“The school district is obviously making its decisions based on what it thinks its data shows, its trends and its projections,” Orem City Attorney Steve Earl said. “I think the concern we have is that they will decide to sell some of this land, which has been used for schools in the past, to a developer. … It means that property is lost forever.”

However, city officials said at the May 16 meeting that Orem has a good working relationship with the Alpine School District and that Superintendent Shane Farnsworth has informed them that the district will continue to interact with the city on a case-by-case basis when it comes to school closures .

Justin Scaccy

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