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Orem rejects school district split, 4-3

Along with Pleasant Grove, city leaders decide issue won’t be on November ballot

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Orem and Pleasant Grove voters won't be asked to split Alpine School District when they go to the ballot box in November.

City councils in the two north Utah County cities voted against putting the issue on the November ballot.

Pleasant Grove leaders voted unanimously late Tuesday night against the measure. The vote by Orem officials came minutes after midnight — after the Deseret Morning News' print press deadline.

Officials and residents in Orem discussed and debated the issue for more than five hours. In the end, the Orem council voted 4-3 in favor of not placing a question in front of voters about whether or not to split from the Alpine School District and face the challenge of creating a school district in Orem.

Orem Councilman Les Campbell said he didn't want to make such an important decision so fast. "We don't have time to educate our public," he said, "and I believe that's our responsibility."

However, Councilwoman Karen McCandless said she believed there was enough information to take it to the voters and cast her vote for the ballot option.

"My support of placing the question on the ballot doesn't mean that I support or don't support a school-district split," she said. "(But people) should have the opportunity to voice their feelings at the polls."

The issue remains under consideration in Lindon and Vineyard. The city councils of the two cities have yet to meet to vote on the proposal.

In the spring, the Utah Legislature passed a law specifying how school districts can divide, and about a dozen cities along the Wasatch Front are considering creating smaller districts.

The Alpine School District has 54,000 students; parents have complained about the district's math program and how administrators do not address their concerns.

Last week, two educational consultants presented feasibility studies that showed the number of students in Orem will decline. That could be offset if Vineyard students are included in the plan.

The former Geneva Steel property in Vineyard has been sold to a developer, who has proposed building houses and businesses at the site. That could boost the number of children in the city while building the city's tax base.

One of the studies determined residential property taxes will increase by about $3 a month on a $100,000 house if cities form a new district.

The $3 would be needed to pay off Alpine district bonds and for the new district to issue a small bond for an administration building and upgrades at the new district's schools.

At Tuesday's Pleasant Grove meeting, only two residents spoke in favor of the split, while more than a dozen spoke against it. Most of those opposed were teachers or retired employees of the Alpine District.

Blain Edman, principal of Pleasant Grove Junior High School, said the uncertainty over which district his students, teachers and staff belong to would create a distraction at school.

He noted that Alpine recently awarded the school a $97,000 grant for new computers and technology. Two teachers will train for two years to use the equipment. If the school becomes part of a new district, it could lose the equipment.

"If this is on the ballot, they're going to be saying, 'Are we going ahead with this? Are we not going ahead with this? Should I finish the training?'"

Teachers will prefer to stay with the Alpine District because the benefits and pay are tied to their years of service and would be more secure, he said.

Other residents, including Gail Christiansen, whose wife is an Alpine teacher, believe a split is inevitable but say a vote in November is too soon. They believe people are too emotional and there is not enough time to disseminate accurate information to voters.

"I would ask you just to put it off," Christiansen said. "If it's feasible and we do think it is great, we can vote on it (in a year)."

Proponents of dividing the Alpine District believe timing is essential because the Nov. 7 ballot will also feature a question about authorizing the district to issue $230 million in bonds for construction projects. If the district splits now, residents on the south end will not have to pay for the bonds.

Residents on both sides of the issues lined the City Council chambers in Orem and were given three minutes each to address the pros and cons of splitting from Alpine. Most said Alpine was doing a good job.

Proponents of the split said the issue is not about the quality of the school district but whether voters should have the chance to voice their opinions at the polls, said Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, who spoke as a resident and a legislator.

"The vote tonight is not about the quality of (Alpine) but whether you will squash this effort or whether you will allow it to proceed forward to the vote of the people."

The questions raised by feasibility studies were too overwhelming for Orem resident Garth Seastrand, who spoke against the ballot measure.

"I think tonight this could have been a hard decision," Seastrand told the council. "But after what we've heard tonight, this isn't a hard decision. You are justified in saying that we're not going to involve our people in a mess such as this."

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com; sisraelsen@desnews.com