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Jordan's money woes in spotlight

High-schoolers walk out; Herbert says district should not have split

WEST JORDAN — Theater is usually 18-year-old Erica Spencer's favorite subject, but Thursday during stage tech at West Jordan High, she couldn't keep her eyes off the clock: 8:27 … 8:28 … 8:29.

As soon as the minute hand hit 30, Spencer was up and headed for the door. Nearly a thousand students at West Jordan High, Copper Hills High, Riverton High and West Hills Middle School joined her.

Their mission: to protest Jordan School District's plan to lay off 250 teachers in an attempt to dig its way out of $30 million in deficit.

"People think, because we're kids, we don't know what's going on," Spencer said. "We do. We know they're laying off teachers, we know they're increasing class sizes and we know we're upset."

Hundreds of students, holding signs with slogans like "You cut teachers. We cut classes" and "Could you fit us all in one classroom?" rallied in front of Copper Hills and Riverton high schools. Hundreds more piled into cars and stormed the district offices.

"Students have voices!" they chanted. "Save our teachers!"

Jordan School District, which blames its deficit on the recession, state budget cuts and its 2009 split from Canyons District, will not finalize financial plans for 2011 until after the legislative session. After listening to public input this week from teachers, parents and students, the school board will spend the next few weeks taking a hard look at budget cut options.

"We have to really consider what is best for our students," said Jordan School Board member Rick Bojak after meeting with some teens from West Jordan High Thursday. "The kids are No. 1."

Student worries center on how money problems will affect their future. If the district lets 250 teachers go, class sizes will go up an average of four students.

On paper, Jordan School District has a 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio in elementary school and a 27-to-1 student-teacher ratio in high school. In practice, though, students at Copper Hills and West Jordan high schools said, in core classes like English and math, teachers have to manage 35 to 40 students. During the first few weeks of school at West Jordan High, most classes were so stuffed students had to share seats or sit on the floor, said Mandie Lucas, a 17-year-old senior.

Under the current plan, high school teachers would also be required to give up preparation periods to help mitigate class size increases. Students fear overburdened teachers, trying to cut down correcting time, will assign less homework.

"We don't like homework, but we know it's good for us," Lucas said.

Administrators, who caught wind of the protest late Wednesday, pled with students to stay in class and look for alternative ways to share their opinions.

When grim-faced Copper Hills Principal Todd Quarnberg approached the students mobbing his front lawn, the students quieted momentarily. Nick Ignjatovic, a 16-year-old junior, approached, offering a tentative handshake.

"We're doing this for you guys," he said.

Ignjatovic, with the help of a few friends, initiated Thursday's protest through Facebook and mass text messages. Jordan School District's teachers union, Jordan Education Association, did not orchestrate the student walkout.

"I don't approve of walkouts, but I get it," Quarnberg said. "I've never felt a time when I was as fearful as I am now. The kids feel that, too."

Superintendent Barry Newbold pushed back his meeting schedule after 200 students showed up in front of district offices Thursday morning, calling for his attention. He spent two hours chatting with a few about the district's financial situation.

"The student representatives this morning were very sincere and passionate about their love and appreciation for their teachers," Newbold said. "It was the perfect teaching moment for them and me."

But even though he, along with the Jordan School Board, promised Thursday to revisit the poorly received budget proposal, options remain grim.

Of the district's eight funds, only one — the general fund — is in deficit. Eighty-eight percent of the general fund goes to pay salaries — the rest is spread among textbooks and utilities. State law prohibits the district from redistributing money from other accounts.

Jordan District's alternatives, then, include eliminating jobs, increasing class sizes, cutting back on administration, reducing or killing programs and implementing an across-the-board salary decrease for all employees.

"The district budget deficit is a monumental challenge requiring the most difficult of choices," Newbold said.

Gov. Gary Herbert expressed doubt Thursday, during his monthly news conference with KUED Ch. 7, that Jordan's financial saga will have a happy ending for all involved.

The governor said district officials, who are being pushed not to lay off teachers or raise taxes, are stuck "in a double box."

He called the situation "a lot of grief." The 2009 split that created the Canyons District never should have happened, he said.

"I think everybody would acknowledge that this split, for one side that was not able to participate in the vote to their disadvantage economically, has really caused a lot of grief," Herbert said. "I don't think they should have split."

However, former Sen. Carlene Walker, who brought about the legislation that allows a school district to split, said she stands by her law.

"I am proud to have enabled my district (Canyons) to move forward," Walker told the Deseret News. "I am thrilled Canyons District is innovating and doing exactly what my constituents wanted to happen."

The governor's new commission on excellence in education, set to begin meeting next month with Herbert at the table, will look at statewide equalization of school funds, he said.

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com; astewart@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com