Court upholds Canyon schools

Education » Appeals ruling mostly symbolic; it brings end to bitter 'divorce.'
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The creation of Canyons School District, Utah's first new district in 100 years, was upheld Thursday by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

For more than a year, the federal appellate court has been mulling whether the election that triggered the split of Canyon's parent district, Jordan, was legally flawed because some voters were excluded.

"That question," a three-judge panel decided, "is best left to the Legislature, not a federal court."

For Jordan and Canyons officials, the Jan. 7 ruling is largely symbolic. Canyons went live six months ago, and administrators from both districts have put the costly, acrimonious divorce behind them.

Disappointed by the ruling because "it says a portion of citizens have no voice in something that impacts their future and their childrens' futures," Jordan Superintendent Barry Newbold said "we have big financial challenges ahead of us and that's what we're focusing on."

Canyons Superintendent David Doty was pleased by the court's decision and issued a perfunctory statement: "We will continue our work to provide optimal educational services to students within the cities and communities that comprise the district."

But insofar as the ruling upholds state law, it has a bearing on future school district splits. Utah law authorizes cities to break from an existing school district through an election open only to their residents.

So it was that in 2007, residents of five cities on Jordan's east side voted to break from what was then Utah's largest district. Excluded from the election were six west-side cities, including Herriman, which sued, arguing the law violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

Last March, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart ruled against Herriman and the city appealed.

"We felt we had a legitimate case," said former Herriman Mayor J. Lynn Crane. Taxpayers in the excluded cities should have been consulted, because they suffer the consequences, argued Crane, citing direct costs exceeding $40.5 million and a property tax disparity leaving Jordan with $1,000 less per student.

And that's just Jordan's lot. Canyons has spent $25.8 million on legal and consulting fees and building an administration. And costs for both sides continue to mount.

The 10th Circuit conceded "it may have been better for the legislature to expand the electoral district to include all residents, but...the Supreme Court has left a state's ability to change the boundaries of its local governmental entities largely undisturbed."

No lawmaker has stepped forward to amend the law. Funding disparities between school districts, however, continue to dominate lawmakers' educational agenda.

At least one lawmaker wants to require land-rich school districts like Canyons to donate some of their property tax revenue to land-poor districts like Jordan. Jordan already benefits from a similar "equalization" law limited to districts within Salt Lake County.

Donor districts, however, are angling to have that law repealed.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, is considering carrying a repeat of last year's bill to bring Canyon's per-student spending in line with Jordan's. The measure is reportedly dead-on-arrival.

"But there's always hope," said Bird. "I'm not opposed to the split. I just don't want my constituents to be taxed out of their homes because of it."

To cover a budget shortfall this year, the Jordan school board approved a 20 percent property tax increase. They had originally proposed a 40 percent hike, but tapped the district's rainy day fund instead.

With that nearly depleted, the board is contemplating another tax hike this year.

What's next

Rep. Laura Black, D-Sandy, is sponsoring a bill aimed at avoiding some of the tangles experienced with the Jordan split. HB29 would dictate the timing for the election of new school board members and delay the effective date for any new district.

What happened

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the legality of splitting Utah's largest school district to create Canyons School District. The ruling caps a bitter, two-year divorce that officials of both districts vow is behind them.