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Jordan school split may not cut into choice

School choice is dear to the Gawrych family, whose four children have special permits to attend public schools outside the boundaries of their Sandy neighborhood school.

But mother Julie Gawrych wonders what might happen to that choice, also enjoyed by 13,500 other Jordan District students, if voters decide to split the district into two, or even three, separate agencies on Nov. 6.

"There are many parents who are concerned about school choice," said Gawrych, who lives in the Copperview Elementary neighborhood but takes her children to Brookwood Elementary and Albion Middle School closer to the east bench. "If my school choice is endangered, definitely, that would be a big issue."

The chief of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education wonders if a new district would have to halt school choice until financial and boundary matters are addressed.

"Yes, of course all the school open enrollment options (under state law) would apply" in a new district, said attorney Carol Lear. "But implementing them in this new environment would be really tricky. ... (For) the students moving between districts, it's going to be difficult to figure out."

But advocates of a school district split say school choice would not be a problem should voters approve of the idea.

"To me, a new school district is going to enhance choice," said Brian Allen, vice chairman of the group, Citizens for Small School Districts. Stating otherwise "is one of those red herrings they throw out there to scare people."

Utah law generally allows students to attend public schools outside of their neighborhood or even their school district, so long as there's room.

The public school choice option apparently is popular in the state's largest school district.

Of some 80,000 Jordan District students, 7,367 elementary, 3,117 middle, and 3,043 high school students attend schools outside their neighborhood school's boundaries (including transfers outside the district and to special programs like Valley High alternative school and Itineris charter school with Salt Lake Community College), district numbers show.

That's about 13,500 students, or about 1 out of every 6, exercising school choice within the traditional public school system. About half of them live in the proposed new east-side district.

Most permit students don't cross the east-west divide.

For example, of 142 permit students at Butler Middle School, just four are from the west side, and 26 are from outside the district.

Mount Jordan Middle School has 19 west-siders, more than any other east-side middle school. That's about 23 percent of the 84 transfers into the school.

At Alta High, 19 percent of 111 permit students are from the west side.

Jordan schools also take in nearly 700 students from other school districts, 39 percent of whom attend east-side schools.

They also give up 2,662 students to other school districts. Of them, 115 are from Brighton High. Lear says students for decades have migrated north to Granite District's Skyline High.

Nov. 6, voters in Sandy, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Alta and Midvale will decide whether to secede from the Jordan School District. The new east-side district would contain 33,500 students and 45 schools. West Jordan voters also will decide whether to create a city school district, which would have 20,600 students and 23 schools.

Those opposing the splits have worried about sustaining programs such as gifted and other magnet programs and those for children with severe, multiple disabilities. Such specialty schools and property such as district offices will be divvied up by transition teams representing the old and new districts.

In the mix are school choice concerns.

Choice always is less complicated within the same school district, Lear says. If that's the case, then the majority of transfer students, including the Gawrych family, may be able to rest easy.

But "it's going to be a mess if you're going to sort out where kids have gone, where they want to go — all those things are going to be multiplied with new districts," Lear said.

When a student transfers out of a school district, leaders use a special formula to calculate how much money to give the student's new school district to cover the cost of the child's education. But will a new school district have a handle on what the local portion would be? What about being able to draw boundaries, a process that some school districts have undergone using only neighborhood enrollments, and not students attending the schools by choice? Lear believes answers are not simple.

"I think this is an area certainly people are thinking about ... it is more complex than what most people concern themselves with," Lear said. "Splits don't lend themselves to quickly letting kids go back and forth."

School districts do have the right to put a moratorium on school choice for a period of time while it aligns its schools, Lear said.

But that won't have to happen, said Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Cottonwood Heights, who carried smaller school districts legislation.

School choice, she said, "will be the same with the new (east-side) school district. Those living on the west and wanting to go to school on the east can continue to do that. ... I don't see any problem or conflict. We have talked through that and that will continue with the rules as they were before."

Allen notes the split would not disrupt a single school feeder system and that boundaries probably won't have to change.

The matter really comes down to trust. There is no school board in place to bring petitions or questions about school choice, policy or governance. Cities initiating these ballot questions will not run the school districts.

Those passionate about breaking away, however, are likely to seek a school board seat. And Allen is certain those new board members will be eager to hear from and respond to their new constituents — a big reason why they're seeking to form their own agency in the first place — as they get established.

The new board will be elected in June and take office in mid-July, then have a year to create governance model, policies and other matters associated with running a school district.

"If I have any involvement in it ... I would say look, we'll allow choice; that's what's fundamental in providing parents the opportunity to get the best education for their kids," Allen said. "The vision is they're going to pull the community together. I have faith in the process, I have faith in people."