DRAPER — A new $65 million high school will be a welcome addition for many Draper residents. But its construction could potentially mean 10 of the Canyons School District's elementary schools will function at less than 70 percent of capacity.
The high school is one part of the district's ambitious plan for academics that includes district-wide grade reconfiguration. Beginning fall 2013, all of the district's 2,512 ninth-graders will move from junior high into high school in order to give them a more rigorous learning environment, according to the district. All of the district's 2,625 sixth-graders will move from elementary school into middle school.
Alta High in Sandy and Hillcrest High in Midvale are already overcapacity, so to try to fit in an entire new grade would be impossible without another building.
"That's what motivated the building of the (new) high school," said board member Sherril Taylor. "We didn't have space in the southern end of the valley."
A boundary committee made up of 16 parents, three principals and nonvoting district personnel was charged with redrawing all school boundaries for the district's 33,000 students. The committee has met weekly since September and recently submitted its preferred option to the school board, along with several other options for consideration, said district spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook.
"It's a huge task," she said. "I think the way the committee has done their work has been exceptional."
The group was given specific parameters, including the stipulation that all current schools and locations had to be maintained, meaning no schools could be closed.
In the boundary committee's preferred elementary option, beginning in fall 2013, 10 elementary schools would operate at less than 70 percent capacity — and three of those would operate at less than 60 percent.
Under the current grade configuration and boundaries, only two elementary schools are at less than 70 percent capacity, according to district enrollment data.
"These numbers are not inappropriate," Toomer-Cook said.
Under the preferred option, Butler Elementary would function at 56.6 percent capacity, Park Lane would function at 57.3 percent capacity and Brookwood would be at 58.1 percent capacity. Bell View, East Sandy and Silver Mesa would be close to 60 percent full while Willow Canyon, Granite, Edgemont and Peruvian Park would be a little less than 70 percent full.
Taylor said the new grade configuration will free up needed space in elementary schools in the Draper area that are experiencing growth, and Toomer-Cook said unused rooms in less-full schools could be turned into computer labs or make dual immersion and magnet programs possible.
There are no laws or State Board of Education rules that dictate how full a school has to be, said Carol Lear, director of law and legislation at the State Office of Education.
"There's not really a state standard for when a school has to be closed," she said. "But the district has to (financially) run in the black."
Lear said there was once a rule that required schools to run at a minimum 70 percent of capacity in order to receive certain state funding, but it has since been eliminated.
"The reason the board did away with that was because the exceptions kept swallowing the rule," she said.
What it comes down to is economics. It might make sense to a district and a community to run three schools at 60 percent capacity depending on the age of schools, maintenance costs and what the property tax base is in the community, she said. In another community, it might not be worth it.
"I think there are some people who desire efficiency above all else," Lear said.
Sarah Meier, a board member in the Granite School District, said capacity isn't as big of a factor as the number of students enrolled. An ideal elementary school population should be around 500 students, but the learning environment isn't negatively affected until that number gets closer to 300.
"When you get that small, the options and the opportunities become a little bit less," she said. "There's a point at which you're too big, but there's also a point at which you become too small."
Education gets challenging when there are only two teachers per grade, since there aren't many other options for students who don't mesh well with their teacher's personality, she said.
Under the preferred option proposed by the committee, none of the elementary schools would have fewer than 300 students. The elementary schools closest to that number would be Brookwood with 346 students, and Park Lane with 369.
Jenn Searle, a PTA president at Canyon View Elementary, said she is supportive of the district's grade reconfiguration and new facilities, especially since her children will get to attend a rebuilt Butler Middle School. Searle said she does hope the board makes prudent decisions with the funding put forward by taxpayers.
"I hope that Canyons School District (officials) have studied the boundaries and school capacity in depth enough so that our tax dollars will be maximized," she wrote in an email exchange.
Toomer-Cook said it's crucial to the district and the board that all schools remain operational.
"Closing a school is a very difficult thing for a community," she said. "Schools are the center for our community."
All the options are currently hypothetical and none of the proposal would pose a financial threat to the district, she said.
"(The board) is not going to vote for something that is going to put us in a bad spot, not at all," she said.
Draper residents have wanted their own secondary school since before the Jordan District was split to form the Canyons, said Taylor, who has served on both boards of education.
"Draper has such a sense of community already. It's just kind of up and coming right now," said Kiely Hanks, a parent in the district.
Hanks said she voted for the $250 million Canyons bond in 2010 that will pay for the new high school and a dozen other rebuilding and remodeling projects.
"I felt like we needed more schools out here," she said. "I can't think of a better way to spend your money."
Taylor said he has heard from a lot of parents like Hanks, and none who are concerned about elementary schools with low capacities.
"My Alta parents are almost as happy as the Draper parents," Taylor said. "It will help alleviate some of the overcrowding in Alta."
The board hasn't set a date for when it will vote on boundary options, but Toomer-Cook said it won't drag out the process.