After split, Jordan braces for new chapter

Education » Utah's largest school district must face recession and smaller tax base.
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Barry Newbold rolled up his sleeves Monday morning, boxing up some last-minute items before lingering at his office door to reflect on two decades of work and memories.

"When you finally move, it's very real," remarked the Jordan School District superintendent, who on July 1 will relinquish his office and nearly half his 94 schools, 80,000 students and $2 billion in assets to the new Canyons School District. "I feel some melancholy and nostalgia, but they tell me by noon, I'll be fine."

The division of Jordan, Utah's largest school district and one of the largest in the nation, has taken a toll on Newbold. Since 2007 when east-side residents voted to break from the district to form their own, he says he has been in "maintenance mode," weathering the political, legal and financial fallout while keeping schools and buses running.

Now, from a new temporary office just down the road, he must regroup to see a new -- smaller, but rapidly growing -- Jordan through the worst recession in his lifetime and with a much smaller tax base.

"I never ever imagined this would happen on my watch," says Newbold, insisting that with the district split behind him, "it will be refreshing, to focus again on education."

A career educator, Newbold started as an elementary school teacher and joined Jordan's administrative team 20 years ago as a testing specialist. He has been superintendent for 13 years.

He and his wife are products of Jordan schools. So are their children; their youngest graduated from Jordan High this summer.

The 55-year-old has enough pension hours to comfortably retire, but says he wants to see the new Jordan firmly established.

The Jordan district split was inevitable and largely beyond Newbold's control, city leaders say.

Faced with massive enrollment growth in booming Herriman, West Jordan and South Jordan, the district focused its construction dollars west building new schools. That irritated east-side parents who felt ignored and frustrated by closed and crumbling schools.

"I don't blame Newbold or the school board. How else could they deal with the growth? Jordan was just too big," Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan said.

Newbold has no regrets, and though he thinks the split was poorly timed and orchestrated, he has come to terms with it.

He views the coming year as a time to "refocus priorities." He's not sure they'll be new, just fewer in number and slower to realize.

The district has talented, loyal staff and a strong foundation academically, he says.

But Canyons inherits Newbold's highest performing schools -- those feeding into Alta, Brighton and Jordan high schools -- leaving Jordan with the lowest performing in the West Jordan and Copper Hills feeder systems.

Add to that the fact that Jordan's schools are bursting with kids and still growing. Elementary schools are on year-round schedules and dotted with portables.

Two new schools open next year, but there's an immediate need for 10 more, and that takes money.

With the split, Jordan loses its rich, commercial tax base; about $654 per student in property tax revenue.

There's talk of hiking property taxes, but public opinion polls show little appetite for that.

"Jordan's property taxes are already 30 percent higher than other districts in Salt Lake County. We predict in 10 years, they will be 100 percent higher," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, a Republican from Draper and president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.

One alternative to taxes advocated by the Taxpayers Association is moving Jordan schools to a trimester model. It's an idea brainstormed by Newbold and other members of a "K-16 Alliance" charged with finding solutions to the pending teacher shortage.

Under the model, students can go at their own pace, attending as many semesters as they want throughout the year. It maximizes space by running schools year-round and would mean more pay for teachers who are now restricted to 180-day contracts.

"We can't wait, we simply can't wait," said Stephenson, who warns of a downward spiral for Jordan. "If they hike taxes, they'll have a tougher time attracting companies and the commercial tax base they need long term."

Herriman Mayor Lynn Crane says Stephenson's concerns are overstated.

"We certainly need retail and commercial development," Crane said. "But our demographics are such that it will happen. Businesses will see there's a market here."

That said, Crane is worried about the burden on homeowners and has offered to share city facilities with Jordan.

Newbold is open to all ideas, but says the trimester solution isn't a cure-all and is harder to implement than it sounds.

Parents are already itching to get off year-round schedules and the savings are limited, he says. "You still have to pay teachers to staff the schools."

Over the coming months, the Jordan school board will weigh a mix of options. Newbold is short on details, but says, included are bonding for new schools, split schedules and busing kids.

"It can't be my idea. It needs to be an idea that springs from the people. That process can't be rushed," Newbold said.

His job is to keep an eye on hard realities while staying upbeat, he says. "People aren't going to follow you if they think it's only downhill from here. They want someone to say, 'We'll make it, we're strong and our future is bright.' And I think it is. I sincerely think it is."

Jordan School District

Established in 1905, Jordan School District opened its doors with 3,000 students, 70 teachers and 20 community schools. It became Utah's largest school district, at its height serving 81,000 students.

In 2007, east-side residents voted to split from Jordan to form the new Canyons School District. Come July 1, Jordan will serve 48,000 students at 50 schools in Bluffdale, Copperton, Herriman, Riverton, South Jordan and West Jordan

Old Jordan District

81,000 students

94 schools

24 average class size

55 percent schools making AYP*

$2,818 property tax revenue per student

$652 million budget

New Jordan District

48,000 students

50 schools

24 average class size

45 percent of schools making AYP*

$2,164 property tax revenue per student

$301 million budget

* Adequate Yearly Progress toward national standards indicated by No Child Left Behind