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Proposed law could help determine if Summit County school districts merge

A row of blue school lockers.
Helistockter - stock.adobe.com

Utah lawmakers will look at a bill that could prompt school districts in Summit County to change their boundaries.

The proposed bill automatically prompts feasibility studies for school districts with more than 40,000 students or less than 5,000 students. For districts with more than 40,000 students, the study would look into splitting up the district. For districts with fewer than 5,000 students, the study would look into combining it with another district.

Wasatch County would likely not be affected by the bill as it has only one school district with over 8,000 students enrolled.

According to the Utah Geospatial Resource Center, Summit County has three school districts that each have less than 5,000 students. Park City School District has about 4,700 students, South Summit School District has about 1,500 students, and North Summit School District has about 1,000 students.

However, combining districts isn’t easy.

“Even if we had a county school district where North Summit, South Summit and Park City were all one district, [Route] 40 might still be the boundary line," said Park City School District Superintendent Jill Gildea. "We're still a fairly rural area, no matter what we probably are going to have some families that are going to have a 15, 20 even 30-minute commute to school.”

Gildea said Park City School District is open to discussing joining districts or changing boundaries. However, some key considerations are local control and each area’s unique identity. Plus, right now each district can set its own tax rate.

“If you were to consolidate, you typically go to the three districts into a county, you're looking at usually the highest tax rate of the three, the highest salaries of the three and trying to have all three communities agree that that's the best decision,” Gildea said.

Under the proposed bill, each school district gets to make the final decision about realignment. And what Utah lawmakers decide could be a contributing factor.

“Sometimes when we get ahead of that legislation, we don't benefit from the funding that comes from that, because if there might be a funded study, then we could certainly piggyback on that,” Gildea said.

SB 292 is sponsored by Utah Senator Keith Grover, a Republican from Utah County. He said the bill is based on the Orem’s attempt to separate from the Alpine School District last year.

“It was very heated, lots of strong emotions and a lot of issues that we're talking about. But often the facts were lost in the discussion or in the controversy.”

A school district has to do a feasibility study before it changes boundaries. Grover said that study determines if a district is serving the needs of the students, looks into financial components and more.

“In the city of Orem, the city council chose a company to do the feasibility study, which was then debated as being not the right company, or they were more in favor of one side over another side," Grover said. "That created a whole other campaign of misinformation, which just further confused the voters.”

Because of that controversy, Grover’s proposed bill would make the state auditor conduct the study.

Grover said there are pros and cons to larger and smaller districts, but smaller ones are often able to make decisions more quickly.

“It just it just lends to a little bit better management and, and responsiveness to students and parents and a more effective education," he said. "And of course, you can find data on either side of those components.”

Grover will present the bill during the upcoming legislative session starting in January.