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Officials should be allowed to div-vy up school district property behind closed doors when districts split, according to a bill the Senate Education Committee passed Tuesday.
SB71 further specifies how school districts that split should transition from one district into two. It says school districts must put all assets on the table during negotiations, but that those negotiations can be closed to the public, said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Cottonwood Heights.
Transition teams are now working to divide the Jordan School District, which voters in Sandy, Cottonwood Heights and other cities in November opted to break away from to form a new district. Walker's bill could take effect as early as March, meaning it could affect the two Jordan split transition teams, which must finish dividing assets by June, she said.
Her bill is intended to clarify the process for future district splits based on issues and contentions that have already arisen in the Jordan split, including debate over whether certain meetings should be closed to the public. Walker thinks teams should be able to close meetings involving property negotiations.
"These are businessmen making a business decision, and there are negotiations going on," Walker said. "It's a practical way to facilitate the division."
She believes the open meetings law already allows transition teams to meet in private to discuss dividing property; her bill would add a clause specifically stating that transition teams discussing allocation of district property are exempt from the law.
Brian Allen with Cottonwood Heights compared the negotiations to people debating a real estate deal.
Several legislators and speakers, however, expressed discomfort with the closed-door meetings.
"We feel it's important to [students, parents and teachers] who are worried about this process and what it means to them to have full transparency," said South Jordan City Manager Rick Horst, a member of the west-side transition team.
Susan Kuziak, Utah Education Association executive director, also expressed concern about the closed meetings.
"People should have access to those meetings to the greatest extent possible," Kuziak said. "These are publicly funded assets."
Several senators, although also expressing concerns about closed-door meetings, said they believe overall the bill is a good one and didn't want to hold it up. Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, said he expects the bill will be tweaked as it moves through the Legislature.
J. Dale Christensen, Jordan Board of Education president, hopes it will be changed.
"A lot of these things can be done with cooperation and collaboration," he said of the bill. "Very little of this is necessary."
SB71 clarifies the process by which school districts split to form new districts and amends existing law to allow transition teams to meet in private to discuss how school property should be split. A Senate committee advanced the bill on a 3-1 vote, with four members absent. It now moves to the Senate floor.