EDUCATION & SCHOOLS

Parents file lawsuit against Alpine School District over potential closure of 5 elementary schools

May 8, 2023, 9:03 PM

Alpine School District sign...

The Alpine School District has voted to pause the closure studies for Lindon, Windsor, and Lehi elementary schools meaning all three schools will remain open for now. (file photo)

(file photo)

AMERICAN FORK, Utah — A lawsuit filed against the Alpine School District, the district’s board of education and Superintendent Shane Farnsworth seeks to stop the district from potentially closing five elementary schools.

The 33 plaintiffs behind the suit — mostly parents — allege that the district hasn’t followed the law in its process of exploring the closure of Lehi, Valley View, Lindon, Windsor and Sharon elementary schools and associated boundary studies.

The suit, filed in Provo’s 4th District Court, comes less than a month after the same group of parents threatened to bring legal action against the district.

“The parents’ concerns focus on the district not following the spirit or the letter of Utah law for school closures and boundary changes, which requires parents and leaders of affected cities be given a 120-day notice to allow for a robust study and comment period,” according to a statement from the group.

The timeline

What actually happened and when depends, of course, on who is asked.

According to Utah code, parents of students enrolled in any affected school must be notified 120 days before that school is closed or its boundaries are changed.

“We feel that the board has not met the legal demands placed on them to continue with these school closures,” said Crystal Muhlestein, a plaintiff and parent of students at Windsor Elementary School.

During the district’s Nov. 29 board meeting, after a proposed $595 million bond for the district failed, the board requested a districtwide boundary study to explore possibilities around restructuring or consolidating boundaries and evaluating school buildings for potential closure, Alpine School District spokesman David Stephenson said.

In early December, the district sent a letter to parents notifying them that since the proposed bond failed, the district would be initiating a boundary study that could result in potential closures.

Stephenson said all buildings the district aimed to address through the bond funds are on the Utah K-12 Public Schools Unreinforced Masonry Inventory, making the buildings seismically unsafe in the event of an earthquake.

Lehi, Valley View, Lindon, Windsor and Sharon elementary schools made their way onto the unreinforced masonry inventory and are considered for closure, according to boundary report results.

On March 1, the district then sent an email to parents and city mayors, councils and administrators, notifying them that the five elementary schools were being considered for closure and/or boundary adjustments and starting the 120-day notice period prior to the closure of any schools, as required by Utah code.

However, the lawsuit claims that at a Feb. 28 board meeting, the board “voted to close Sharon, Windsor, Valley View, Lindon and Lehi elementary schools and implement the associated boundary and program changes to be effective in the ’23-24 school year.

“On Feb. 28, they voted their final vote to close the five elementary schools. So before March 1, which is the notification date that they’re (Alpine School District) now going with,” said Alicia Alba, a plaintiff and parent of students at Rocky Mountain Elementary.

Seemingly, a bulk of the disagreement between the plaintiffs and the district can be traced to the Feb. 28 board meeting, when board member Joylin Lincoln made a motion “that the board of education direct staff to begin a formal process, in accordance with state statutory requirements, of closing Sharon, Windsor, Valley View, Lindon and Lehi elementary schools and implement the associated boundary and program changes to be effective in the ’23-24 school year.”

The motion passed, with board member Sarah Beeson casting the lone opposing vote.

The March 1 email sent out by the district the day after the Feb. 28 board meeting states that the motion passed was “to move various components of the General Boundary Study to a FORMAL STUDY.”

Essentially, the district said that the vote wasn’t a final nail in the coffin of the five schools but, instead, a vote to move into the formal study process — denoted by the March 1 email specifically notifying parents who could be impacted.

Alba took it even further, alleging that the district “actually started closing the schools” on March 1.

“They reassigned administrators. They encouraged teachers to find employment elsewhere. They asked PTAs … to not hold elections,” she said.

When asked to comment on these claims, Stephenson said the district does was unable to comment on “pending litigation.”

‘Communication vacuum’

While the bulk of the plaintiff’s grievances with the district are focused on the alleged unlawful timeline by which the district has operated, parents involved in the lawsuit said they don’t feel like the district has truly listened to them.

Stephenson completely disagrees and said that last month’s public hearing was the latest in a series of efforts by the district to give the public a chance to voice opinions and allow the district to compile input.

“The law only requires that we do two board meetings and one public hearing. We’ve actually gone out and we’ve completed six open houses and we’ve also received 1,430 electronic feedback comments,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to understand when someone says we haven’t taken feedback.”

Still, Muhlestein said she and others would like to see more direct communication from the district.

“It’s been a real communication vacuum from the district since day one. They’ve only sent, I believe, two, maybe three emails this entire time,” Muhlestein said.

Stephenson said feedback can still be provided through an online portal and at upcoming board meetings.

If the lawsuit is successful, the group hopes the district will restart the process of studying the potential closures.

“There may be boundary adjustments that are appropriate. There may even be closures that are appropriate to make,” Alba said. “However, the public needs to be included in that process, they need to include people who have that knowledge in that process before they make these closures.”

After last month’s public hearing, the district remained adamant that no final decision had been made regarding the closure of any of the five schools, noting that decision likely won’t come until the end of June.

“A final decision on some or all of these proposals could be made in the coming months,” Stephenson said in a statement.

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Parents file lawsuit against Alpine School District over potential closure of 5 elementary schools