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The new Olympus

A portion of the new Olympus High School in Holladay, Tuesday, March 26, 2013.
A portion of the new Olympus High School in Holladay, Tuesday, March 26, 2013.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Those who worry Utah doesn't invest enough in public education should take a tour of the new home of Olympus High School in Holladay, a $75 million monument to the best current thinking on how a school facility should accommodate modern methods of instruction.

That's not to say there isn't good reason to worry about the state's collective investment in public schools, because it takes more than big new buildings to create an education system that aspires to excellence. It takes more than money, as well. But as far as buildings go, the new home of the Olympus Titans is impressive in scale and design.

It is roughly twice the size of the old Olympus, and will serve roughly the same number of students, though enrollment is expected to grow. It boasts a large theater, bright and spacious common areas, private offices for teachers and the kind of technological connectivity needed to take advantage of innovations in educational science.

The new campus is funded from the proceeds of a $256 million bond issue by the Granite School District, which also will be used to retrofit several other school buildings to meet seismic safety codes, and to build a new Granger High School in West Valley City, scheduled for completion in the fall.

The bond issue is an investment in local schools made by the people in the area the schools will serve. Residents strongly supported the bond issue, in part because it will require no increase in tax levies to pay off. The district will use an existing capital fund to service the debt.

But throughout Utah, bonding for new buildings and upgrades of existing facilities have traditionally met with voter approval, often by large majorities. It is strong evidence that people put high value on their community's commitment to public education.

Capital outlays for education infrastructure are funded in Utah at the most local levels, district by district. Funding for operating costs comes mostly from annual allocations by the state Legislature. When communities vote to invest in facilities as we have seen in the Granite District and elsewhere, it sends a clear message to legislators that citizens are of no mind to be stingy when it comes to their local schools.

But, as we know, Utah faces unique challenges in funding public education. Advocates for increased investment bemoan the fact that Utah's rate of per-pupil spending is lowest in the nation. But it is important to note that Utahns spend more money on public education as a percentage of individual income than do residents of many other states. It shows, as do numerous public opinion polls, that education funding is a top civic priority.

Also, that measurement is not particularly meaningful, as there is no correlation between per-pupil expenditures and graduation rates or performance on exams. As with many other endeavors, modern education is being disrupted by the Internet and by an increasing array of choices. These are exciting changes for parents and students, but are often resisted by educators.

There is no discernible data that would suggest an outstanding school building translates into outstanding scholastic achievement. A system that values the quality of its buildings over the quality of the work inside is a system suffering from an edifice complex. Utah's best educators understand the need for a balanced investment in both capital costs and for instructional and administrative expenses.

The new Olympus High is an impressive structure. What really impresses long term, however, is the way what goes on within its walls, and within the walls of all Utah schools, prepares students for the future. That is where the state's attention must be riveted.