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Scope Creep in the Park City School District

We all love our children. We love our children’s teachers. We want an education system that provides our children with every opportunity. So I write this article with a bit of a heavy heart. How do I both question what the school district is doing, but still let them know they have my full support when the rubber meets the road? I think honesty is probably the best route and I’ll understand if members of the school district are upset by what I say. Yet, I think it has to be said because it has long term impacts on our children.

So I’ll say it. The Park City School District Suffers from scope creep in fundamental ways that are going to jeopardize our children.

I’ve been following the School Board’s Master Planning Committee, who are charged with figuring out what district building needs are, since January. I’ve watched as they’ve discussed trends in education. I’ve watched them as they’ve discussed new buildings. I’ve heard them take into account the broader needs of Park City. I’ve been impressed by the outside chairpersons they’ve brought in from the community to run the committee (Rory Murphy and Sean Morgan).

I’ve also seen how ideas presented have been pushed into what seems a broader agenda. For months I watched as the committee discussed grade realignment. They would project a spreadsheet onto a screen where they talked about the pros and cons of realigning grades. I heard a presentation from a committee member about countries like Finland where they have limited the number of times a kid has to change schools which has led to great performance by students. I heard school board member Moe Hickey provide anecdotal evidence of kids in our district who agree with what they found in Finland. Then on March 5th, Superintendent Dr Ember Conley decided to take over. She told the group that she decided, for academic reasons, that we should realign the grades.

That has led us to where we currently are, where we heard this morning on KPCW that school grades were being realigned, which would mean that Pre-K to 4th grade would be at the elementary schools, 5th and 6th would be at a new school at Bear Hollow or Ecker Middle School, 7th and 8th would be at Ecker, and 9th to 12th would be at the High School. Wow, that’s some big shifts.

Yet, let’s go back to that March 5th meeting and hear what Dr Conley had to say about why she decided to take over grade realignment:

“Here’s what happened. Yesterday I spent one of the most intense meetings I have ever spent in my professional career with my elementary principals and my cabinet. And it really had to do with what we are going to do to change our literacy scores in the district as we look at our 11th graders. It came back down to what are we going to do at K-3 [Kindergarten to 3rd grade]. It became such a massive, incredible meeting that that’s when I decided we have to do this. It’s no more… uhh… we have to do this. It’s WE HAVE TO DO THIS.”

From continued conversation and other discussions, when she said literacy scores, I believe she was referring to the fact that only 9% of hispanic students are competent in english per the SAGE test results in 11th grade. English as a second language students don’t know english well enough and providing full time Kindergarten may help that. It makes sense.

I think Dr Conley is right. The solution to the real issue is probably tackling the problem at the earliest grades. Offer a full day Kindergarten. However, why realign everything else? Is there any research behind that? Perhaps you’d say, “well what about limiting the number of times a child switches schools?” The district realignment has the same number of transitions between grades as before. Perhaps you may say, “there wouldn’t be enough room our elementary schools for full day Kindergarten?” Yet, on April 29th’s KPCW Local News Hour school board member Moe Hickey said there was enough room in our elementary schools and that there is likely to be additional classrooms opened up since we will need less computer labs due to our district providing more computers to students.

What’s the net impact? Scope Creep. We have pushed 5th graders up and out of the elementary schools which ultimately causes 9th graders to be moved into the High School. This in turn causes the High School to require additional development and building. Additional development equates to more money focused on building versus going to education.

Then let’s take Treasure Mountain Junior High School, which was the focus of the Master Planning Committee. The School District obviously has wanted to tear the building down for a while and develop something new. There are many myths about the “cursed school” including that it would take $29 million to fix it. If you look at the numbers the School Board has provided, it really looks like $3-$4 million to fix leaky pipes (and other small things) and $25 million for upgrades. Yet, now it has become part of the collective unconscious that we can build a new school for less money than it would take to fix it. A new school for $4 million. Sweet.

Yet, I’ll let that go for now because we are discussing scope creep. So how did we get from tearing down Treasure Mountain Junior high and rebuilding it to also including adding on to the high school, moving the learning center, building a new high school gym, adding music facilities, building a new school district office, moving Dozier field, building a field house, moving baseball fields, and more? Scope Creep.

As Dr. Hadden says in the movie Contact, “First rule in government spending: why build one when you can have two at twice the price?” In this case, why just rebuild Treasure Mountain when you can build twice as much for three times the price.

So, why do you care? Perhaps you’re my next door neighbor who says, “taxes are pretty low here compared to other places.” That’s somewhat true. However, we always talk about trying to have affordable housing and make Park City homes affordable to the people who work here. The higher the tax rates, the less likely someone can afford a mortgage payment. Perhaps you are a school Administrator who says we need to build a new school in order to get our SAGE test scores up. The scores at Treasure Mountain are in line with our newest schools already (the High School and Ecker Hill). Perhaps you are a teacher at Treasure Mountain and say you’d like a better environment to teach in. We can’t fault you for that. However, at some point people are going to tire of tax increases. It’s likely the tax increase that will be impacted is the one that enables your salary to be increased. That’s the one that hurts because I fully believe we need to pay for the best teachers and not the best buildings.

So, where does the rubber meet the road? At current rates the Park City School District will be at its taxing limit (per Utah rules) in 3 to 6 years. At some point, perhaps before that, voters will decide they are tired of increased taxes for schools. Either way, it is likely the teachers, and then our children, are the ones who are hurt.

I don’t want to see that happen because of scope creep. It appears we set out to provide full day Kindergarten and build a new Treasure Mountain School. Having gone to middle school in a 70 year old building, I can tell you it was the teachers and not the building that mattered. And don’t try to tell me that today’s building aren’t wired for technology. It’s ALL WIRELESS TODAY.

If you what to tell me that we need full day Kindergarten to help our Hispanic students, I’m all for it. Just don’t tell me we need to build on to the High School to accomplish it. If you tell me we need a new Treasure Mountain Junior High, I’m not sure I believe it, but for sure don’t tell me we need to build new School District Offices to achieve it.

Scope creep will eat us alive if we don’t stop it. It has destroyed many of the technology projects I’ve been a part of. It’s likely to kill our school district too.

It’s seems to be becoming a trend with our schools. I don’t see that trend ending well.


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