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Salt Lake School Board elects new leadership after president steps down amid board divisiveness

Melissa Ford, Nate Salazar elected in vote among board members

SHARE Salt Lake School Board elects new leadership after president steps down amid board divisiveness
An illustration of a school under lockdown.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Board of Education has elected new leadership after President Tiffany Sandberg stepped aside amid growing divisiveness among board members.

Melissa Ford, who has been serving as the board’s vice president, was selected president in a vote by board members Tuesday night. Nate Salazar, serving his first term, was elected vice president. Both of their current terms expire in 2022.

Ford represent Precinct 6, along the city’s east bench. Salazar represents Precinct 4, which includes Bennion Elementary School and Bryant Middle School neighborhoods.

Sandberg, who was elected to the board in 2012 and has served as its president for over a year, informed the board of her intentions last week. Sandberg said she will complete her current term as Precinct 1 representative, which ends in December, but will not seek re-election.

“I feel that the majority of the board wants to take the district in a different direction than I am able to lead them in,” her statement said.

In an interview Tuesday, Sandberg said the board has become “divisive.”

“Every time I tried to rein things in, things got worse and worse and worse. There is infighting. I just don’t need that stress anymore,” she said.

At the same time, the board is in a “sticky place” because it needs to hire a new superintendent and business administrator, and figure out its next move on a proposal to institute late starts at its high schools, she said. The board recently conducted a listening tour to gauge community sentiment about the proposal.

“The last thing the board needs is to hire another board member so I’ll just step down as president,” she said.

In her statement, Sandberg said, “I want to be able to enjoy the last 10 months of my tenure without the additional burden of serving as the leader of this board.”

In January, Superintendent Lexi Cunningham announced she was stepping down from the Salt Lake City School District. Shortly thereafter, business administrator Janet Roberts announced her resignation. Some media have reported the pair were forced out of their positions, but the school district will not confirm the reports because they are personnel matters.

Sandberg said “it broke my heart” that they stepped down.

“These are two amazingly professional and smart women and for us to be losing them at the same time, I have no idea how this district is going to recover from that. I really don’t. I know there are people who don’t agree with me, which is fine. I don’t agree with everyone either, but it’s a huge loss to the school district,” she said.

Roberts has worked for the school district for 27 years and has institutional knowledge that no one else has, Sandberg said.

Sandberg said she donated the remainder of her campaign funds to the Heather Bennett Memorial Scholarship Fund, “which just felt like the right thing to do.” Sandberg served as vice president under Bennett during her board service.

Bennett, a longtime board member, died unexpectedly in March 2019. She had been undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer but died from a vascular issue. Bennett was elected to the Salt Lake board in 2004 and served in several leadership capacities, including president.

Bennett’s death and several challenging years during Michael Clara’s board service, which a board member described in some media reports as “vocal” and “divisive,” have taken their toll.

“It’s like just the glue came undone,” she said.

The board changes come on the heels of the dismissal of West High School Principal Ford White, who was fired by the school district on Jan. 30, according to his attorney.

On Nov. 14, White encountered three female students who appeared to be sick on campus. “Once Principal White determined that they were likely intoxicated, he addressed the matter without resorting to involving the police,” White’s attorney Michael Teter wrote in a statement.

White was placed on administrative leave on Nov. 15 to allow time for the school district to conduct an investigation. Days later, students staged a walkout.

Another significant issue before the board is dealing with the ramifications of a shrinking student enrollment.