Facebook Twitter

Opinion: The problems with an Orem-only school district

While those championing the split say it will save money, the math doesn’t up — especially when you factor in what students will lose

SHARE Opinion: The problems with an Orem-only school district
Orem High School in Orem is pictured on Aug. 20, 2020.

Orem High School in Orem is pictured on Aug. 20, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The proposed creation of an Orem-only school district has stimulated a lot of discussion in Orem this year. Those who favor a separate district claim that Orem contributes more tax funds to the Alpine School District than they receive back for construction of their own buildings.

Public school finance can be complicated, but considering the two major budgets in a school district is straightforward. One budget is capital outlay and debt service. Funds from that budget are used to pay for constructing new buildings and renovating existing buildings. In the last five years Orem taxpayers paid an average of about $16.1 million per year for construction projects and received about $13.7 million for construction projects on buildings in Orem. By this measure Orem was “shorted” $2.4 million per year. But money for buildings is only part of the funding picture. 

The second budget is the general fund (maintenance and operations). The funds from that budget are used to cover the operating expenses of the district, including salaries and benefits, utilities, buses, etc. Most of the money for the general fund comes from the state income tax, and is determined by how many students are in the schools, using the weighted pupil unit. 

Orem’s student enrollment is declining, and we have fewer students per school than most schools in the district. Based on Orem’s student population, the money from the general fund would be inadequate to run Orem’s school programs. But the Alpine School District steps in to supplement those funds. In fiscal year 2021, for example, Orem schools received additional funds of more than $21 million. The $2.4 million we sent out in the capital outlay budget was more than offset by the $21 million we took in from the general fund. The net gain for Orem schools was $18.6 million for 2021 alone.

If Orem plans to maintain the same level of services provided in the Alpine School District, an Orem-only school district will require a significant increase in taxes. 

It gets worse.

Start-up costs of creating a new district will be added to those tax increases. Orem will have to pay for a new district office, a garage for buses, salaries for a superintendent and other staff members, etc. In the Jordan/Canyons split, the new district had to spend many millions of dollars to cover the cost of the separation. It’s clear that in an Orem-only district, taxes will have to be increased dramatically to provide the same quality of education that is now available in Orem schools. 

A second major problem with a new district is that many teachers will leave Orem schools. In a recent survey, 91.5% of Orem teachers opposed a district split and 84% said they would definitely look for a way to remain with the Alpine School District. Many of the most qualified teachers will transfer to schools in other communities in the Alpine School District, leaving Orem with severe teacher shortages. Teachers are loyal to the Alpine School District, where they feel valued. In the current campaign to form an Orem-only district, many teachers in Orem have felt devalued and minimized. In fact, they feel under attack by those criticizing the district and its teachers.

A third problem is that a district split will seriously disrupt special programs such as special education, dual and English language learning, art and STEM programs.

In an Orem-only district, students will likely lose access to programs like Clear Creek, Christa McAuliffe Space Center, and Dan Peterson School. The consultants’ feasibility study suggested that shared service agreements could be established so that Orem students would still have access to these programs, but such agreements are made entirely at the discretion of the Alpine district.

After all the criticism of Alpine School District by the consultants and by the “Yes” advocates, what is the likelihood that district will be willing to offer shared services to an Orem district? After the Jordan/Canyons split the Canyons district tried to establish shared service agreements with the Jordan district. The division was so contentious that shared service agreements did not occur. 

A community is no better than the education of its children. Orem residents who value our community, and who are concerned about our children and their education, should vote no on Proposition 2. 

Paul Thompson is the retired president of Weber State University.

Additional signers of the letter include Steven Baugh, retired superintendent of Alpine School District; Jim Evans, former Orem City mayor; Val Hale, former executive director of GOED; JoDee Sundberg, former board member of Alpine School District; and Keith Wilson, business entrepreneur.