At the end of March, the City of Orem commissioned a feasibility study to explore whether Orem and its residents could sustain an educational structure independent of Alpine School District. Those findings — detailed throughout 281 pages — were delivered to the city council Tuesday.
In his April video newsletter on YouTube, Mayor Dave Young indicated that from the beginning of the year, he and the City Council had a number of goals, one of which was to provide the best education to the children and families of Orem.
However, while commending Alpine, the mayor added that before the district puts on the ballot a $500 million or more bond and before “the taxpayers sign up for the bond,” city leaders want clarification about how it will affect the taxpayers of Orem.
That motivation has put the city up against a tight early August deadline as it seeks its own ballot measure asking voters to weigh in on the study issue, potentially disrupting the Alpine bond query.
It is so important, the city has hired Intrepid, a public relations firm known for its work with crisis management, to get the word out and to educate residents.
“This is one of the most important decisions impacting Orem citizens,” said Steven Downs, deputy city manager. “We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to help residents understand this important issue and make their voice heard at the upcoming public meetings. We brought in someone with an outside perspective to provide insights and determine how to share that information in the best way.”
As one of the 12 cities that make up the Alpine School District, Orem would be indebted to the four-year bond for about 20% or $119 million of the proposed $595 million bond. As of yet, Alpine has not decided exactly what will be covered with the bond, but new schools and school upgrades are expected, and that could include schools in Orem. A list of capital projects that are needed are can be found on the ASD website.
The study was prepared by DEC Consulting Services LLC. Once known as Discovery Education Consultants, the newly organized company had to change its name after being contacted about a conflict with the Discovery TV channel that also carries the name Discovery Education, according Michael Wankier, principle and partner of DEC.
The scope of the study ranges from the financials of splitting from the Alpine School District and forming a new Orem district to future standings with the Utah High School Activities Association.
In an interview with the Daily Herald, Paul McCarty, partner in DEC, claimed the study was done without bias.
“Findings, not my belief, were neutral and independent,” McCarty said. That said, the group has had a few hiccups along the way.
Since DEC was commissioned, there has been some public outcry disputing the credibility of the DEC, its expertise and unbiased approach. McCarty has also been seeking to form a city school district in Draper. However, that city’s mayor and city council have more than once told him there was no interest.
Other missteps during the research process related to a number of emails obtained by DEC and Jesse Riddle, Orem’s legislative counsel. Riddle published private emails received through the Government Records Access and Management Act but neglected to redact the names of residents sending the emails to the ASD.
It appears the research team requested numerous pages of GRAMA-requested information — at a cost — while most of it was already on the ASD website and free to the public.
A section of the GRAMA request notes that, “Mr. Rob Smith (ASD Business Administrator) confirmed that ASD is required by law to take a neutral position on the possible Orem school district split, and that ASD has not used and does not use ASD resources relating to this or to other political issues. ASD agreed to provide a copy of their policies & procedures and communications relating to the same.”
Smith did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
In Tuesday’s council presentation, McCarty told the council that it appeared Alpine School District had inflated approximately 91% of the numbers and other areas they must submit to the state, a statement that brought background chatter from those attending.
Alpine was DEC’s primary source of information. Wankier told the Daily Herald. “We got a report that appeared to have discrepancies,” he said. “I didn’t like the way (McCarty’s comment) sounded.”
Wankier said he did not believe the district was attempting to be deceptive and he is hoping another meeting can be held with ASD leaders to clarify the numbers.
“This Study and its findings were created through a compilation of supporting data derived from ASD, the State of Utah, Utah County and other sources,” the study summary said. “Having spent nearly five months reviewing thousands of pages of documents relating to school district finances, class size, expenses, revenues, test scores, specialty classes, teacher salaries, Title I concerns, bonding, property values, FEMA issues, academic studies and other relevant data, we have a profound respect for the educational opportunities that have been afforded the students of Orem by ASD.”
Using the data provided by ASD, the state of Utah, the Utah County treasurer and other sources, McCarty and Wankier have formed an opinion regarding the feasibility of Orem having its own city school district.
“We are in a position to make the following statement, in confidence, to you at this time. Of the fiscal and operational data collected and evaluated regarding the potential creation of a new city school district for the city of Orem, we conclude the creation and sustainability of such a school district is feasible,” they said.
The study indicates that if a vote to split to leave ASD is successful, the city immediately would have to hire a transition team and work would begin toward a new district opening for the 2024-2025 school year.
Then, in November 2023, the voters in the new city school district in Orem would elect seven school board members.
By July 1, 2024, a new Orem school district would begin operation. The first graduating class of entirely new students entering the Orem school district as kindergartners would occur in May 2037.
The full results of the study are available on the Orem City website.
Financially, the study said startup money for the district would come from federal and state coffers and the city could loan whatever else is needed. Property taxes would cover ongoing expenses. The new district would only have to pay the city back $500,000 over time.
The new district would receive $9 million from the Alpine School District during the transition year before the new district is up and running, while no money is being generated.
If a ballot measure about splitting the districts were to pass, arbitration would begin within two weeks. That process would include FEMA inspections of the schools and dividing up the assets, including land, buildings, buses and other property, as well as liabilities like bond indebtedness and other debts the new district would be bringing from ASD and is responsible for.
“I believe it’s important that everyone understand what they are paying for,” Wankier said. “They should have a truth-in-taxation hearing early in the process so everyone knows.”
Another likelihood would be an initial property tax increase of 4.2%. Wankier noted the city holds stability for the district and it could rely on the city’s AA+ bond rating. ASD has a AAA bond rating.
With all of that, Wankier said he believes that within a few years the new district would have to take out a bond. “I believe Orem will take out a bond to build, do FEMA upgrades or give money to other issues,” he said.
The unknown is how much an Orem district bond would have to be and whether it would be more than the $119 million it would owe in an ASD bond. The other unknown is still how much Orem may receive from the ASD bond.
According to projections, the first year after a new district gets approved — should that occur — taxpayers would be the most impacted and go from $1,500 average tax output to $1,700. In years two and three, that number would theoretically only go up another $10. However, Wankier noted that all numbers are subject to inflation.
Wankier said Orem’s property values are among the strongest in the district. Lehi is the only other city that has more money and children than Orem, and it could also be its own district, he said.
The study claims that the financial transition would be smooth and that teachers would receive that same payroll and benefits that Alpine offers.
The study spent a lot of paper on the number of students in Orem, comparing enrollment figures from 2006-2021.
Some schools showed great growth, but schools like Noah Webster, a charter school, only had 12 students more over those same years. While the Utah County Academy of Sciences, a specialty school for students seeking dual enrollment in college, more than doubled form just over 300 in 2006 to approximately 634 students in 2021.
In 2006, 584 Orem children were home schooled. In 2021, that had climbed to 1,044, according to the study.
Currently, there are 13 elementary schools, three junior highs and three high schools that would be in the Orem school district. Oak Canyon Junior High is in Lindon but about 40% of the students are from Orem.
The study shows there are currently 85,554 students in the Alpine School District. If Orem were to break away, there would be approximately 14,724 students in the new district. The study projects that by 2032, ASD would have 87,353 students and Orem would drop to 13,806.
McCarty suggests that a great portion of the more than 1,000 students living in Orem but not attending ASD schools, perhaps attending parochial and private schools, would return to the public school system and bolster Orem’s numbers. McCarty says he believes the adage “if you build it, they will come” will hold true.
According to McCarty, parents took their children out of the Alpine district, for the most part, because of classroom size. He believes that will not be a concern in the new district.
In the end, McCarty said the numbers were extremely fluid and, “We don’t know how many will return to the district.”
Athletics is a “big deal,” McCarty said, and lots of coaches, parents and students contacted him about what would happen to the school standings as they compete with 5A schools in the state. This is especially of concern for students seeking college scholarships. Being a 5A school is more lucrative than schools in smaller classification.
McCarty said based on activity schedules and what happened when the Jordan and Canyons districts split, the transition will be “seamless.”
“I went directly to the (state) director of swim programs and he checked with his leadership and came back and said there would be no problem,” McCarty said.
The Utah High School Activities Association looks at the number of students in schools and the strength of their programs. They perform a realignment of schools every two years.
There has been an indication from some ASD board members that a team is doing fact checking on the entire study and would release information clarifying the ASD numbers with the many statements and data in the study as soon as possible.
In the meantime, another public open house meeting on the subject will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Orem Library Hall.