New school district a boon for Midvale

Education » Smaller school district equals more money, attention
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There was no fanfare, no grand announcement.

Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini came late and reluctantly to the decision to join the brotherhood of upscale, east-side communities looking to peel away from Utah's largest school district to form their own.

But in the end, she may benefit most from the Jordan School District split. As part of Jordan, her blue-collar town competed for scarce education dollars with mushrooming suburban developments on the Salt Lake Valley's west side. Now, under the new Canyons School District, Midvale's outdated, underperforming schools will be the lone recipient of an east-side affluence.

If modernized, higher-performing schools lift property values and drive business development, so be it, Seghini says. "I have people sending me e-mails saying, 'I'm looking at moving to Midvale. Tell me about your schools.' "

But Seghini says her chief motivation was to preserve and, ultimately, improve schools, not clean up Midvale.

The new Canyons district goes live July 1, and Seghini will headline a sign-changing ceremony that afternoon at Hillcrest High School, marking Jordan's handoff of 33,000 students and 44 schools.

Afterward, she'll take part in a parade led by Canyons School Board members on Harley-Davidsons through Midvale and district sister cities Cottonwood Heights, Sandy and Draper.

The new district starts the school year on solid footing with an $8 million surplus. And political, financial and legal acrimony stemming from the split and battle over Jordan's assets has subsided somewhat.

But more budget cuts loom, and teachers and parents are still anxious about the unknown, especially in Midvale, where the vote to secede from Jordan failed. Elsewhere, the split passed by a narrow 53 percent of east-side voters, a handy victory but an indication of widespread uncertainty.

"My biggest fear was getting lost in the shuffle, that our needs wouldn't be heard," said Suzanne Walker, mother of four and PTA president at Midvale Elementary School. She voted against the split but is now warming to Doty's "sister schools" idea for harnessing east-side parents to volunteer and raise money for mid-valley schools.

"Community engagement" has been Canyons' clarion call. District Superintendent David Doty has spent the past few months Twittering and holding "town hall" meetings as part of a public-relations campaign to win support for a bond to upgrade schools and new standards to make all kids college-ready and close the achievement gap between whites and minorities.

Doty says he doesn't expect to breeze through reforms that for years have occupied the best minds in education.

Canyons inherits four of Jordan's five Title I schools, those receiving federal money to serve disadvantaged children. Among them is Midvale Elementary, where more than 80 percent of the students speak Spanish at home and qualify for free and reduced lunch, a measure of poverty.

The school has high student mobility and caters to families at Utah's largest homeless shelter. And it routinely fails to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) toward federal education reform goals under the No Child Left Behind law -- in stark contrast to some of the state's highest performing schools in Sandy, Cottonwood Heights and Draper, which Canyons also inherits.

But in other ways, Midvale's educational needs aren't unique. Districtwide, parents want more music, athletics and extracurricular programs. And Midvale shares, even typifies, the facilities problem that spurred east-siders to break from Jordan in the first place.

Canyons school buildings average 38 years of age, with some in Midvale as old as 50 or 60. Few have air conditioning, and some have faulty electrical grids and failing roofs and boilers.

"We have some classrooms where you can't have a computer because there are only two plugs," said Seghini, who believes Jordan "would have never found the wherewithal" to address years of deferred maintenance.

The forces behind the breakup » The small school districts movement traces back to the closure of schools with declining enrollments in the Granite and Jordan districts in 2005. Parents, already frustrated by dwindling resources and exploding class size, felt ignored by administrators and school boards. When a 2006 law made it possible for smaller cities and unincorporated areas to band together to form new districts, the movement was born.

Talk of Sandy and Holladay defecting from Granite surfaced first.

But unique political and demographic forces helped make the Jordan split a reality.

The lion's share of Jordan's construction dollars were spent building new schools in suburban housing developments that were sprouting like weeds west of the Jordan River. That, school closures, and building upgrades that never materialized inflamed parents in Cottonwood Heights, recalls the city's Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore. "I think [Jordan Superintendent] Barry Newbold did the best he could with an unwinnable situation. But you can't have effective teachers in broken down schools."

Added Cullimore: "You get run-down schools, you get run-down neighborhoods. We weren't willing to accept that."

Cullimore financed a fact-finding study to explore possible outcomes of a Jordan division. Consultants declared it would work, but only if Sandy, Draper and Midvale joined.

"It became clear we needed Midvale, because of its federal [Title I] funding and that the district would lose growth without Draper," said Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Cottonwood Heights, who carried legislation that made it possible for east-side voters to decide Jordan's fate.

Shortly after the fact-finder was published, Jordan school board members made it clear they would not support Sandy's Real Salt Lake Soccer Stadium because it would have meant forfeiting tax money for schools.

Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan said the school board's decision had no bearing on the split.

Sandy was already on board and large enough to form its own school district, Dolan said. "Relationships over the years had been strained. School districts felt they were bigger than the cities and were going to do what they wanted to do."

Draper was the next to partner up. The community had long clamored for a middle school.

Then came Midvale.

"It was a hard decision for me personally," said Seghini, who worked at Jordan for 36 years as a teacher and top-level administrator before taking office in 1998. "I loved the people there. The district's track record was one of credible performance by kids, both the haves and have-nots."

But when the Jordan split seemed bound for a vote, Seghini says she went to Newbold and asked him, "If this goes to ballot and we don't join, where will Midvale kids go?"

It became clear they would be bused to West Jordan and that Hillcrest High would close because it draws so many children from Sandy and Cottonwood Heights, Seghini said. "I didn't think my people wanted that, to be the stepchildren of West Jordan."

Restrictions on taco cart vendors and a police effort to clean up rental units speak to a desire to infuse new life into Midvale's Old Town. Also on tap is a major housing development and retail district planned for Bingham Junction, the former site of a smelting, refining and mining company.

"We'll need a new school with all that growth," Seghini said.

Midvale schools will lose $400,000, about 10 percent of its Title I funding, because the money is awarded based on head counts and Canyons has fewer heads.

But under Canyons, Midvale has its own school board member and access to a rich, stable commercial tax base, says Seghini. The district generates about $3,545 in property taxes per student (compared with Jordan's $2,164), some of which can be used for daily operational costs.

Bridging Midvale's achievement gap won't happen overnight, acknowledges Doty. But if accomplished, "it will permanently put to rest the notion that the district split was perpetuated by a bunch of east-side elitists who just don't care."

Canyons School District kickoff events

Canyons, Utah's first school district to be created in nearly 100 years, will serve 33,000 students in 44 schools in Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Midvale and Sandy. The following events have been scheduled to mark the district's July 1 birthdate. They are open to the public.

Today, 5 p.m. » Canyons District Night at Real Salt Lake, including games, prizes and live student performances. Discounted tickets available, $13-$30.

Wednesday, 9 a.m.» Opening Ceremony at Alta Lodge in Little Cottonwood Canyon; light breakfast, time capsule (bring a small item).

Wednesday, 12:30 p.m. » Sign-changing ceremony at Hillcrest High School (7350 S. 900 East, Midvale); speaker Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini.

Wednesday, 2-3 p.m. » Bus parade through four cities, starting at Canyons District Offices at Cottonwood Heights Elementary (2415 E. 7600 South, Cottonwood Heights). For parade route, visit

Wednesday, 3-5 p.m.» Birthday cake, music and open house at Canyons district offices, 2415 E. 7600 South, Cottonwood Heights.

--Readers note: This story has been corrected to change the $400,000 amount mentioned.