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Legislature passes bill to prevent local school boards from initiating school redistricting

The legislation puts a stopper in Alpine School District's plans, but cities' interlocal agreements unaffected

By Carlene Coombs - | Jun 20, 2024

Carlene Coombs, Daily Herald

Rep. Brady Brammer presents a bill during the Education Interim Committee at the Utah State Capitol on Wednesday, June 19, 2024.

During a special legislative session Wednesday, Utah lawmakers passed a bill amending the state law that outlines the procedures for initiating a split or reconfiguration of a local school district.

The changes come as Alpine School District and various cities in its footprint are having discussions about splitting the district and holding public comment on the issue.

Most notably, the legislation would prevent a local school board from starting the process of a split, something the Alpine school board voted to consider last month.

Currently, several cities in the Alpine School District have entered into an interlocal agreement to begin the process of splitting away from the district. Interlocal agreements will be able to move forward.

Two interlocal agreements have been created — one with Saratoga Springs, Eagle Mountain, Fairfield and Cedar Fort and another with Lehi, Draper, Highland, Alpine, Cedar Hills and American Fork. Orem, Vineyard, Lindon and Pleasant Grove have not entered into an agreement.

The agreements allow each group of cities to begin the process, which includes a feasibility study and public comment periods, before deciding if the split would be placed on the ballot for voter consideration.

Only voters within the cities that have entered into an interlocal agreement will get to vote on splitting. If both agreements were sent to the ballot and approved by residents, it would create a three-way split of Alpine School District, leaving Orem, Pleasant Grove, Vineyard and Lindon on their own.

Alpine School District began the public comment process of considering the split in May. The district currently is considering a two-way split that would allow for Saratoga Springs, Eagle Mountain, Cedar Fort and Fairfield to splinter off, varying from the interlocal agreements.

Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo, who is the Senate sponsor for the bill, said that the current interlocal agreements would allow for dozens of city council members to represent their citizens in the process, rather than just seven board members from the district.

“They (the cities) get to work on it and present what they think is best for the citizenry,” he said. “I think the smallest government governs best. And that’s why these changes are coming now during a special session.”

Grover added they decided to address the issue during the special session due to the timeliness of the issue.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, who is sponsoring the bill, said its purpose is to have a “clear ballot and clear result.”

“There’s a lot of fighting as to whether the split should happen or not,” Brammer said during a committee meeting Wednesday. “That is not this bill, OK? And so I want to make sure that we’re not getting into, you know, the pros and cons of splits and all of that. That’s really not what this is about.”

Brammer said the issue arose when several cities entered into an interlocal agreement around the same time as the school district initiated its own process.

He said that has caused the issue to become “messy,” with the possibility of having multiple split options on the ballot simultaneously.

“If there are multiple measures on the ballot and they all pass, what happens? Nobody knows,” Brammer said.

He added that the removal of the school board option is likely temporary and only to address this year’s issue, and it’s likely the option will return during the 2025 legislative session.

The district held its first public hearing last week and has another hearing scheduled for Tuesday, said Rich Stowell, communications specialist for Alpine School District.

As of now, Stowell said the board still has plans to hold the public hearing but could motion to cancel it.

Stowell said if the bill passes, the district expects it “will conclude the process that our board has begun to study on the reconfiguration.”

“While the legislature does its work, we will continue our efforts to ensure we are ready to deliver the best educational experiences to our students when school resumes in August,” Stowell said in a statement.

“Our focus is, and will always be, to achieve our vision for learning for each student we are privileged to serve,” he continued.

During Wednesday’s committee meeting, Julie King, an Alpine School District board member, said she strongly advocated for having a school board option but is supporting the bill because “clarity” on the process is needed.

“There’s a gap in code about how to deal with those competing initiatives. … We need clarity now to avoid voter confusion,” she said.

Cissy Rasmussen, an Orem resident who was representing the anti-split group Stronger Together during a 2022 push to separate Orem schools from the district, said she opposes the bill, calling it “unfair,” particularly for voters in the cities that have not entered into an interlocal agreement and will not be able to vote on the issue.

Alyssa May, an Orem parent, called the move “undemocratic” by taking the vote away from citizens like her whose cities have not joined into an agreement.

“I was told that voters might get confused if there’s too much on the ballot,” she said. “I reject that notion. I think voters are smart, and we can clarify exactly what everything means. Please allow everyone who is affected by this to vote on it.”

Alpine school board member Mark Clement said the district is currently in the study phase for a ballot measure that would allow all voters in the district to vote.

“I think that if you want to amend this bill to provide some prioritization, that would be fine, but we need to give all voters the chance to vote,” he said.

Ada Wilson, an Alpine school board member, said “no area should be disadvantaged” by an option that is being put forth, adding that a three-way split does not support the district as a whole.

Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, attempted to make an amendment to the bill in the House to allow all voters within a district to vote on a split even if they are not located in the new proposed district. That amendment failed to pass the legislative body.

The bill also changes the public comment period from 45 days to 30 days, prevents a municipality from entering into more than one interlocal agreement and puts limitations on when a city can withdraw from an agreement.

The legislation also clarifies when a school district boundary change needs to be placed on the ballot and the timeline for elected school board members in the case of a new district being created.

Earlier this year, the school board hired Florida-based MGT Education to conduct a district-split feasibility study, with the company presenting six feasible options for the district, including remaining as is.

The new bill passed the Senate 23-1 and the House 65-7.

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