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Educated voters on education issues?

City chiefs worry that residents are confused about school issues

From school vouchers to smaller school districts, residents in the Jordan School District will have a lot to consider at the ballot box on Nov. 6 — and it's cause for worry with some city leaders.

Between talk of the east-side cities breaking into a new district and subsequent west-side cities considering the same, leaders in various Salt Lake County cities are concerned their residents might confuse the issues.

Add to that a lack of campaigning on the matter, fractured communities and a fear of the unknown, and it's easy to see how Election Day has some local leaders on edge.

In West Jordan, where voters will decide if they want to create a school district just for their city, City Councilman Rob Bennett says he's concerned about a lack of public awareness.

"Some people appear to have mixed the issues," Bennett said. "I think some people are possibly under the impression that this vote we're having ... will have an impact on whether the east side will leave the Jordan School District ... . That is not a correct understanding."

One reason residents may be confused is because campaign efforts for and against the split has been spotty. Just in the past month has a citizens' group popped up in favor of the split. And, to date, a local group against the split has yet to form.

Cottonwood Heights resident Nicole Bangerter helped start the group Citizens for Small School Districts, or C4SSD. The group is putting up lawn signs which read "Vote yes to create a new school district."

"I understand the need to build new schools on the west side. But I also want us to have air-conditioners on the east side," Bangerter said in reference to the school-construction urgency on the west and renovation in the east. "The fact is, they closed two of our elementary schools two years ago and now we have overcrowding."

Those schools, Cottonwood and Mountview elementaries, were in Cottonwood Heights.

The group is fund-raising through its Web site — www.c4ssd.com — and has so far raised $3,500 in donations. Most of that came after the Jordan Board of Education voted Tuesday to oppose district splits. West-side leaders say they appreciate the board's stance but wonder if the position has come too late.

So far, the only west-side group standing up to the split movement is the Oquirrh Alliance, a west-side group of civic and business leaders advocating smart growth on the west side. Riverton Mayor Bill Applegarth said it is unusual that more citizens groups haven't formed in the west side to oppose an east-side split, but the fact that the west side doesn't have a vote on the issue is probably a big factor.

Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore Jr. says he's also surprised a west-side group hasn't formed. It would be hard for west-siders to effectively campaign in a community that wants it, he adds.

In May, a Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted by the county's east-side cities wanting to split from Jordan School District found that 89 percent of residents favored putting the district split on the ballot. Supporters, Cullimore added, have all banded into the C4SSD group and partnered with the Small School Districts Coalition, a grass-roots group that formed three years ago, but a new school district still isn't a given.

"If (voters) don't want it, we certainly wouldn't pursue it," Cullimore said. "The thing that's been hard to generate a lot of citizens' momentum has been the question mark. There's been lots of questions if it will go on the ballot. It wasn't cleared to go on the ballot until the first of September."

But now, just weeks before the Nov. 6 general election, Cullimore said he is nervous the city will have to battle the rumor mill. There is not much of a chance for strong public dialogue since Jordan School District voted Tuesday to retract their neutral stance on the split issue and instead voted 4-3 against it.

"We've been doing this for two years and for them to wait three weeks before the election to take a position, that leaves little time for debate," he said, adding he was surprised they changed their decision. "To suggest to the people that there will be a loss of programs, loss of jobs, there's nothing to support that. In fact, the feasibility study said there will not be a loss of jobs or a loss of programs."

South Jordan City Manager Rick Horst said he's glad the district took a position that is in line with his community's concerns, but the decision came a day late and a tax-dollar short. The risk of not having a choice in what happens to the Jordan School District has prompted South Jordan to commission a feasibility study into creating their own district that should be completed by early December. Recent legislation dropped the population minimum for school districts down from 65,000 to 50,000, allowing South Jordan to consider the option.

"Our first thought is that this is a global issue, and we'd like to attack it globally, but at some point you're down to doing the best thing for your own citizens," Horst said. "We want to understand what our options are, and at least now we have options, where we didn't before."

Meanwhile, Herriman, which is too small to form its own school district, recently decided to appeal a ruling in which the city's lawsuit for an emergency injunction in the election was denied. The city is worried about how it will pay for the new school buildings that it needs if the Jordan School District — as it is today — implodes.

"It's apparent that cities need to do what they need to do, but ... I think we would have had more success if we had had more unity (in the lawsuit)," said Herriman City Councilwoman Raquel DeLuca. "I think we should be united with our east-side neighbors, because their concerns are the same as ours, but we haven't been able to be unified in that. As far as citizens go, I don't think there has been enough togetherness on this issue, because it's come so quickly."

DeLuca isn't the only west-side leader who feels like the district issue is like a "freight train headed to who knows where," Applegarth says there is a host of questions that worry his residents, like how the resulting district will pay for new buildings and provide classes for those with special needs if the east side separates from the west side.

"There is a general fear of the unknown of what is going to happen," Applegarth said. "The whole division is lacking detail, so what is going to happen? My feelings are, whatever it takes, we have got to make sure that every child has a good education, and that means, whatever I have to do to see that my grandchildren, those that live in the Jordan School District, whatever I have to do to see that they have a good education, I'm willing to do ... . We have to make sure there are good schools for every student in Riverton."

Although the city is in a holding pattern of not knowing what will happen, Applegarth said, if nothing else, at least the general election on Nov. 6 will give one answer.

"I worry about the single-parent mom with a few kids who doesn't have access to the system and how scared she must be," Applegarth said. "There is nothing more important than our children and our grandchildren, and this uncertainty creates a lot of insecurities. It will be nice to have it decided and be on our way and start talking about concrete solutions and that will give them hope."


E-mail: achoate@desnews.com, astowell@desnews.com