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Too big? What an Alpine School District split could be like

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Skyridge preps to open for school 04

Student council members and movers prepare Skyridge High School to open Monday, July 18, 2016, in Lehi. SAMMY JO HESTER, Daily Herald

With 75,403 students, and another 4,600 expected by 2020, Alpine School District doesn’t just stand as the largest in the state and one of the 45 largest in the nation, but its student population alone is larger than some countries.

The district has more students in it than there are people in Dominica, and its student population is about equal to the population of Monaco and Liechtenstein combined.

Alpine School District is the fastest-growing district in the state, and is struggling to keep up with the increases in the student population. In November, voters will cast their ballots on a $387 million bond that would be used to build new schools, rebuild current ones and purchase land for future schools. The bond will reportedly not cause an increase in property taxes.

Although it’s large, the district is still significantly smaller than the biggest ones in the nation. As the largest in the United States, the Los Angeles Unified School District has more than 650,000 students. The Puerto Rico Department of Education and Chicago Public Schools follow with 423,900 and 396,600 students, respectively.

But while the growth and size of the district comes with advantages, like being able to have more specialists, specialty schools and being able to save money by buying in bulk, it also has some wondering if it’s time to revisit the topic of splitting the district.

There hasn’t been a major discussion on a possible split in 10 years, since when members of the Orem City Council voted to do a feasibility study to see if a new school district should be created. At the time, the district had about 54,500 students.

Before that, a petition was signed by more than 1,500 people proposing for Lehi, Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain to break off and become the Pioneer School District.

No serious discussions

Alpine School District spokesperson Kimberly Bird said serious discussions about a split likely won’t happen until the district stops meeting essential needs.

“We aren’t fearful of the conversation of a split, but it hasn’t taken a priority because we are meeting the needs in so many ways,” Bird said.

She points to the Fairfax County School System in Virginia, which has about 180,000 students in it and is a high-performing district when it comes to academics.

Splitting Eagle Mountain, Saratoga Springs and Lehi off from the rest of the district, Bird said, isn’t likely.

“They couldn’t afford it,” she said.

A split wouldn’t address large classroom sizes, Bird said, and would bring about additional administration costs, as there would be two superintendents covering the same area.

Rebuilding schools on the east side, which the district has been doing, Bird said, winds up costing about as much as building a new school in areas of growth.

Alpine School District Board of Education Member Brian Halladay vocalized support for a split during an August meeting when the board was preparing to vote to put a bond on the ballot. At the meeting, he expressed concerns with the growing size of the district and said a bond would cause a redistribution of wealth since the majority of the bond funds would be going to the west side of the district.

Board Member Wendy Hart echoed his concerns, but ultimately voted to put a bond on the ballot, while Halladay voted against placing a bond on the ballot.

Halladay did not respond to a request for comment.

Rachel Thacker, who is running for the seat that represents the Pleasant Grove High School cluster on the district board of education, a seat currently held by Halladay, has been vocal about her request for a smaller district. But her vision goes beyond a single split.

Thacker can see the district splitting into three, with one being the west side of the current district, one being for Orem, Lindon and Pleasant Grove, and the third comprised of the Alpine, Highland and American Fork area. But what she would prefer is for a high school and all of its feeder schools to be a single district.

“More parents would be involved and it would be a much better school,” Thacker said.

Smaller districts, she said, would also help to eliminate funds from the east side of the district going to the west side.

“They are going to be the ones going to be paying for the schools out there and they will never have the benefit for themselves,” Thacker said. “I don’t think it is fair that we should have to be footing that bill.”

But a smaller district, proponents of a split say, would also mean more local control as elected school board members would be representing fewer people.

Currently, there are seven members of the Alpine School District Board of Education, split into the Westlake High School cluster, the Lone Peak High School cluster, the American Fork High School cluster, the Pleasant Grove High School cluster, the Mountain View High School cluster, the Lehi High School cluster, and the Orem and Timpanogos high school cluster.

“I don’t think seven people can effectively govern and do a good job helping a school district this size,” Thacker said.

Precedent

If Alpine School District were to ever split, it wouldn’t be the first school district in the state to do so. In 2009, the Jordan School District split and the east side became Canyons School District after a vote of eastside residents only.

Both districts saw a significant tax increase following the split.

John Larsen, business administrator for the Jordan School District, was working for the district during the split seven years ago.

Larsen said that a big part of splitting a district is actually creating one. After the split, the Jordan School District had to buy a new district warehouse and repair shop, both of which were located on the east side of the district prior to the division, and a computer system.

The split, which he said took years to complete, also didn’t come without massive costs. The split cost $59 million, which included substantial legal fees and didn’t include the cost of additional administrators for the new Canyons School District.

And the monetary costs didn’t stop there. Larsen said that after the split, property taxes went up by 20 percent in what was left of Jordan School District and increased by about 17 percent in Canyons School District.

After the split, Jordan School District had 42 percent of its original tax base to pay for the remaining 59 percent of the students. One year after the split, substantial cuts, including to staff, had to be made.

“Any time you split a district like this, there is going to be a winner and there is going to be a loser,” Larsen said.

The biggest cost, he said, was to the students, who lost opportunities they had with a larger district.

But the Jordan School District’s experience might differ from what Alpine School District would undergo if it chose to go in the direction of a split.

“It would be different for Alpine,” Larsen said. “We were blazing a trail that had not been done.”

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