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What factors could trigger Alpine School District split?

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Map of the district boundaries presented to the board in the meeting on March 23, 2021. The thick blue line is Interstate 15.

Lehi couldn’t create own school district under state law

Three potential processes could trigger a potential Alpine School District split, according to information presented to its board of education on March 23.

A vote to restructure the district could be placed on a ballot after a citizen petition, a school board request, or a vote from a city or cities within the district’s boundaries.

Options were introduced by Rob Smith, an assistant superintendent for the district, in a series of continuing presentations on the topic. Smith also addressed the board last month when he discussed potential reasons the district might consider splitting and the possible cost of constructing a second set of administrative facilities.

Smith encouraged the board to keep in mind the more than 82,000 students and 400,000 residents a decision could impact as he showed a map of the district and introduced the ways to trigger a restructuring.

“We need to remember who we are,” Smith said. “This is a picture of us, but ‘us’ is more than just a map. It is more than just the 14 municipalities that we serve.”

As potential timelines are presented, he said, “it becomes real.”

Discussions about a potential split have circulated in the district’s community for the last two decades as enrollment continues to rise.

Utah has traditionally had geographically large school districts compared to the rest of the nation, where a large city may have five or more districts within its borders.

The last time a district restructured in Utah was when the Canyons School District split from the Jordan School District a decade ago. The split, which Smith has used as a reference, cost the two districts about $64 million in new buildings and staff. However, Smith has said that ASD has already done some things to mitigate a potential split’s impact, including having two existing transportation facilities. Buildings could also be shared.

Smith mentioned he’d heard concerns from employees about what would happen to their benefits in case of a split. He said that employees have rights about salary, leave and tenure that would be recognized in case a district restructured.

The first option that would trigger the process to potentially split the district is a citizen petition. The petition would require signatures from at least 15% of all votes cast within the district’s geographic boundaries during the most recent presidential election. The petition process can only be done once every four years.

The county clerk would need to certify the petition signatures before December 1. The Utah County Commission would have to appoint an ad hoc advisory committee before January 1, filing a report by July 1. The commission would then vote to place a potential split on the ballot.

That process started once before in 2003. Smith was a member of that advisory committee at the time.

If the school board were to request a split, it would need to establish the boundaries of the split. The county clerk must certify the request within five days and then forward it to the county commission, which would have to approve it for inclusion on the ballot.

The final option would occur if more than one city requested a split. Smith said Orem made the request about 15 years ago. It also conducted a feasibility study.

The request would have to be done by a city of at least 50,000 residents and be passed by a majority vote of that city’s legislative body. It would then be placed on the ballot for voter approval. 

The boundaries of the city’s school district would be limited to that municipality’s boundaries. However, another city could join in that new district. The city-based school district must have contiguous boundaries and cannot surround another pocket or isolate one district.

“So, you can’t basically vote those people off the island, if you will,” Smith said. 

The new city-based district also cannot cross county lines.

Amber Bonner, a member of the board, said that the area’s geography means that some cities would create an “island” if they were to branch off into their own district.

“It looks like it depends on the position of the city whether they could,” she said. 

That may prevent cities like Lehi, which would split the county’s eastern and western sides — from creating its own district. The same appears to be the case for Saratoga Springs and Pleasant Grove.

While no board members explicitly stated during the meeting if they were in favor or against a split, board member Julie King asked last month for information on a possible three-way split.

Sara Hacken, a member of the board who represents part of Orem, said the board should review the three previously presented criteria for a split, which include whether students are performing at lower levels due to the district’s size, if ASD’s financial strength is declining, or if public engagement is down. Information on those three topics has not been presented.

“So, to me, there should be a triggering event or a triggering process before any of this comes to pass, because if not, why? When it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Hacken said. 

Board President Mark Clement said part of a potential split study could examine those three factors.

“That sounds great,” he said. “I think that would be a great resolution or conclusion to the process,”

Smith plans to give at least one more presentation on a potential split, including district assets and other considerations.

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