School district divorce: Jordan's split cost $33 million
Education » But the sum is only the beginning: Jordan will lose its rich property tax base.
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Love hurts. But it's divorce that really stings.

And the breakup of Utah's largest school district may rank among the costliest in state history.

The tab so far: $33 million.

That's according to reports obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune showing how much was spent thus far dividing Jordan School District. A protracted legal battle over Jordan's assets accounts for about $3 million. The rest was spent hiring people to run the new Canyons district and relocating Jordan's central offices, which Canyons inherits.

Whether it's money well-spent depends on who you ask -- and where they live.

East side residents voted in 2007 to leave Jordan and form their own "Canyons School District." The split becomes official in July.

Proponents of the split contend smaller is better, that more attuned leadership will improve education for all students. Elected officials to the west fear the fallout will be tax increases or larger classes and fewer programs.

Either way, $33 million is a tidy sum. It's more than double the amount that Jordan lost to budget cuts and exceeds by $7 million the combined annual spending of Utah's five smallest school districts.

"Does anyone come out a winner in this? Our children certainly don't," said Herriman Mayor J. Lynn Crane. "We took a perfectly wonderful school district and spent a bunch of money dismantling it."

Herriman invested some of its own cash, about $113,000, contesting the legality of the split. That lawsuit is pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Peggy Jo Kennett, chairwoman of the Jordan School Board, laments, "All this money could have been spent on education ... It's going to take years for it to be recouped."

But $33 million is just the beginning.

When the split goes live this summer, Jordan loses its rich property tax base, meaning 41 percent less funding per student.

This, coupled with budget cuts and the fact that Jordan is growing, has district officials weighing property tax hikes of 50 to 100 percent, said West Jordan Mayor David Newton.

Newton hopes to avoid that through sharing city services and facilities.

But Jordan's moving expenses continue to mount. And when the district's three-year temporary lease is up, it may have to bond to build a permanent home.

The Canyons will occupy Jordan's old office space. But the district is weighing a $400 million bond for school improvements and has yet to hire custodians, grounds crews, computer techs and as many as 100 bus drivers.

Canyons Superintendent David Doty is still mapping a budget, but promises a leaner administration.

"Nobody in education likes to see money for schools spent elsewhere," said Doty, "We're in an advantageous position, because we can size the district according to our needs and available revenue from the get go."

The year-long dispute over assets -- hiring lawyers and other experts to value school buildings -- might be considered wasteful. But Doty said arbitration brought finality to the settlement, avoiding further expensive litigation.

Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore anticipates Jordan will downsize through attrition, balancing out new Canyons hires.

"All we did was slice off a layer of bureaucracy. The only duplication will be at the top; we'll have two superintendents," he said.

In the long run, taxpayers in both districts will save money, promises Cullimore. "All the published literature points to the ideal district being 30,000 to 40,000 students. You get economies of scale without losing the personal touch."

Doty hopes that's true and that "at the end of the day, people will say, 'Yes it was worth it.'"

kstewart@sltrib.com