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$630 million in school funding hinges on Jordan, Alpine district voters

WEST JORDAN — Fourteen brand new schools. Five rebuilds. At least 10 renovation projects.

That's what's at stake for two Wasatch Front school district heading into Tuesday's election, all resting on a pair of bond proposals together totaling more than $630 million in property taxes.

In Jordan School District, voters will consider a $245 million bond to help pay for five new schools and a rebuild of West Jordan Middle School.

Alpine School District voters will weigh a $386 million bond to build nine new schools, rebuild four and renovate 10.

While district officials are restricted by law from campaigning for or against the bonds, they're urging voters who haven't already cast their ballots to make educated decisions and know what the districts may face if the bonds aren't approved.

It's been 13 years since a bond has passed in Jordan School District. Voters balked at the district's 2013 attempt — a bond with a $495 million price tag.

Now, projections show the district's enrollment on track to skyrocket by 9,250 over the next five years. Jordan School District spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf says the district already is dealing with overcrowded classrooms and has stretched its dollars to the max.

"We would be in a very difficult position (if the bond fails)," Riesgraf said. "Growth is here; growth is coming. We have to do something."

It's a similar story in Alpine School District. Projections estimate enrollment to increase by up to 6,000 in five years, said district spokeswoman Kimberly Bird.

"We would certainly be in a crunch," Bird said.

The Utah Taxpayers Association isn't opposing either bond.

"We recognize this is an area where the state is seeing the most growth," said Billy Hesterman, vice president of the watchdog group. "Both districts have made commitments to us to control their construction costs, and we believe they'll follow through with that over the life of those bonds."

Hesterman said he also hopes the school districts will "continue to look for ways to be frugal and stretch their dollars as far as they can."

Jordan School District

Built in the 1950s, West Jordan Middle School is riddled with rusted pipes, overwhelmed with needed repairs and isn't earthquake safe — meaning it would cost more to renovate than build a brand new school.

Just last week, a heater in one of the band rooms sprung a leak, filling the room with steam and damaging three cellos, each worth thousands of dollars.

"Every time we turn around, there's something to Band-Aid," West Jordan Middle School Principal Dixie Garrison said.

If the Jordan bond passes, crews would immediately begin construction on a new West Jordan Middle building in the field behind the historic school. Once it's complete, students would be transferred over and the old brick building would be torn down.

Garrison said the district has been "squeezing every last dollar" ever since the 2013 bond failure, and she doesn't know what will happen to West Jordan Middle if this year's bond fails as well.

"We feel like it's now or never for West Jordan Middle," she said. "If this doesn't pass this year, we have no idea when we'd ever get this school replaced. The growth demands would just trump this building being rebuilt."

To the south, Herriman High is bursting at the seams. It was built for 2,650 students, but its classrooms this year held nearly 3,000.

"If you try to get through the halls, go to lunch or a football game, everything is congested and overtaxed," Riesgraf said.

In the next five years, district officials predict Herriman High's student population will balloon to 4,700 — growth that would require 85 portable classrooms.

Jordan School Board member Jen Atwood said the bond is "absolutely" needed, otherwise the district simply would not be able to house the swell of students.

Dawn Ramsey — a mother of three children currently attending Herriman High, Copper Mountain Middle and Jordan Ridge Elementary who is also director of Jordan School District's Parent-Teacher Association — said she's "cautiously optimistic" the bond will pass.

"The school board has done everything in their power to make this as fiscally responsible as possible," Ramsey said. "They've done their homework."

The school district held 56 open houses to educate voters about the bond.

If it passes, owners of a $300,000 home would pay $16.80 more per year. Over the life of the 20-year bond, the payment would decrease.

For more information about the bond, visit jordanbond.org.

Alpine School District

Charlotte Ducos said her 17-year-old son, Nick, goes to Westlake High in Saratoga Springs, where she said the parking lot and hallways are a "nightmare."

Westlake was built for 2,200 students. This year, enrollment topped 3,000. There's nearly as many portable classrooms outside as classrooms inside. Lunch is offered three times a day to fit students into the cafeteria.

"It's chaos," she said.

Ducos added that more than 140 students play in the school band with her son, and while big numbers are exciting for the band, students seeking to try out for school sports often face long odds of making a team.

This year, as many as 300 students tried out for the basketball team, she said. Ducos worries that overcrowding could be limiting students' extracurricular experiences.

"Our children are our most valuable resource. If we don't invest in them while they're young, they'll lose the opportunity," she said.

If Alpine's bond passes, the district would fund four phases of construction projects, beginning in 2017 and running through 2020.

Nine new schools — one high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools — would be built in Eagle Mountain, Lehi and Saratoga Springs.

Lehi High, Cascade Elementary in Orem, Central Elementary in Pleasant Grove, and Greenwood Elementary in American Fork would be rebuilt.

Major renovations would take place at Mountain View High and Timpanogos High in Orem; Lone Peak High in Highland; Oak Canyon Junior High in Lindon; and Legacy Elementary in American Fork.

If the bond passes, the district won't be raising property taxes because it will only be continuing the last bond voters approved in 2011, Bird said.

"We're good stewards of money," she said, noting the district's AAA bond rating.

Alpine School District voters have approved the past three bond proposals, Bird said, so she's encouraged that the community will again prioritize providing "quality education for children, knowing they grow up and become members of our society."

For more information about the Alpine bond, visit alpineschools.org/bond2016.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1