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Utah State Legislature abandons 'local control', turns screws on Salt Lake City schools

Utah State Legislature, abandons 'local control', turns screws on Salt Lake City schools (Photo: KUTV)
Utah State Legislature, abandons 'local control', turns screws on Salt Lake City schools (Photo: KUTV)
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Often times, when a bill is opened on Utah’s Capitol hill, lawmakers are coy about the motivations for a particular piece of proposed legislation. However, when it comes to Senate Bill 0107, there is no hiding what spawned that bill.

The legislation threatens to strip funding from any school district which does not offer an in-person option to its students. There was only one district offering virtually learning only when the bill file was opened, and that was Salt Lake City Schools. When Beyond the Books reporter Chris Jones asked the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Dist. 23), if SB 0107 was directed at Salt Lake City, he answered simply, “Yes, yeah it is.”

Salt Lake City Board President Melissa Ford and her board had voted, until recently, to keep students and teachers out of the classroom out of fear of the spread of COVID-19. The decision has been controversial but Ford argues the choice is the board’s to make. She said:

I think honoring local control is the most important thing here,” says Ford, “I think that is something that has been a time-honored value in Utah.

In Utah, school boards are autonomous, meaning they operate 100% independently from the state legislature or the city in which the schools are located. The school boards answered directly to taxpayers and voters.

“The local control” argument is a value Utah lawmakers lean on often, particularly when it comes to federal oversight of the state. The most recent example came just days after former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was sworn in as president on January 20th. President Biden ordered a review of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. You may recall President Barack Obama declared the lands in Northern Utah national monuments in the waning days of his administration. President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the monuments using executive action in the first years of his one-term presidency.

Utah’s federal delegation, as well as Utah state legislators and Gov. Spencer J. Cox, issued a statement condemning the potential move to re-expand the monuments saying when it comes to federal land management, decisions in Utah “have often been done to us, rather than with us.” However, Speaker of the Utah House Brad Wilson did something to the Salt Lake City School District in December when he dropped a bombshell on the beleaguered district when he rammed through an amendment that would restrict the district’s teachers from getting a proposed $1,500 bonus if the district didn’t get students back in class as soon as possible.

Beyond the Books, using a public records request, asked for all communications between the Salt Lake City School District and lawmakers. We discovered legislative leaders never reached out to school leaders to work out a solution and warn them that the bonus could be excluded from their teachers.

At a press conference during the first week of the legislative session, Beyond the Books asked Wilson about the idea of local control as it relates to Bears Ears and Salt Lake City Schools.

Chris Jones: Speaker, there’s a sense that the feds might try to shove an expanded Bears Ears down the state’s throat, but Salt Lake City Schools think, in part to your bonus amendment and SB107, may feel that you are trying to shove in-person learning down its throat. How can you declare local control in one case, but not in the other?

Speaker Brad Wilson: Well we actually have given Salt Lake City local control. It’s completely and entirely their decision whether or not they want to open up their schools and whether or not they want their teachers to be eligible for that bonus, unlike the federal government which is not giving us any part of that decision making.

CJ: It seems like, because of the threat of not allowing bonuses, and also (the threat of) pulling funding, that that’s punitive and punishment rather than working with the district.

Speaker Brad Wilson: Well, I would say those are your words and not mine Chris.

The pressure appears to have worked, although the school district was in the process of giving options to many parents for in-person learning, Ford admits the threats from the state did accelerate the districts’ plans to get kids back in class.

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Last week Weiler, the sponsor of S.B. 107, said he would abandon the bill if Salt Lake City created a plan to get students back in the classroom.

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