Politics Magazine

Battle Over New School District Gets Ugly

Posted on the 23 October 2022 by Thelongversion @thelongversion

I’ve lived in Orem for 38 of my 62 years on the globe. I graduated from Orem High School in 1978. I own a home in Orem where I currently reside with my wife, youngest son, and two dogs. So the issue of possibly creating an Orem School District caught my attention. Initially, I was leaning against the idea. Many of my neighbors are against it. Friends and people I know who work as teachers and administrators in the Alpine School District have come out against it. But when it comes to political issues I’ve never been one to make a decision based on the decisions of others; family, friends, or otherwise. I also carry the blessing or curse, it can be both, of having a journalism background that leads me to be skeptical of everything government says and does. It requires I do my own due diligence to the best of my ability to discover and learn the facts and then make an informed choice.

So I started digging.

The city of Orem in Utah County has considered creating its own school district at varying times for over 20 years. A number of feasibility studies have been done over that period, with the most recent study being completed this year. Orem City Council voted 4-3 to put the proposal on the ballot and let the people of Orem vote on it. Alpine School District had been successful in previous years to dissuade Orem’s elected officials from putting the measure on the ballot and letting the people have a say, you know, democracy and such… This time, with a new mayor and several new city council members, democracy got its chance.

From the outset this issue was going to be a data driven decision for me. Public schools are funded by tax dollars, predominantly property tax dollars at the local level, state funding, and some federal funding. One might think crunching those numbers, as the feasibility study was designed to do, would make the choice pretty black and white. I mean, math doesn’t lie…unless those doing the math want it to. It seemed pretty straight forward. Look at the tax rolls and see how much money Orem residents pay in to the current Alpine School District. How much comes back to Orem schools? How has the district responded to Orem school needs, building issues/repairs, student learning and test scores, teacher pay, etc. Ultimately the decision should be based on which option will most improve the learning environment and education for Orem’s kids. Is that better accomplished creating a new district or going with the status quo?

Alpine School District administers public schools for 14 cities. This is a very large school district and is in the top 50 largest districts in the country. Some say it has gotten too big and isn’t serving the needs of the students in some of the older cities in Utah County. The Daily Herald wrote a story about this back in 2016, when members of the school board discussed the idea of a split. At that time ASD had just over 75,000 students. It now has over 85,000.

It didn’t take long for the proponents and opponents of the Prop 2 as it appears on the ballot, to start slinging the mud at each other. The feasibility study was the first target for opponents who weren’t happy to see a positive result in favor of Orem’s desire to split. Opponents aggressively attacked Discovery Education Consultants, the group that conducted the study. StrongerTogether’s criticism lacked any data to allow readers to verify their claims. This becomes a theme of the arguments at ST’s website. But a closer look shows that 4 feasibility studies have come to the same conclusion yet ST doesn’t malign the other 3.

Both sides have websites giving their version of the numbers, reasons for or against, and all the typical fear mongering that goes with this kind of heated emotional issue. I have done my best to dig into the arguments of both sides, wade through the rhetoric, and try to find the verifiable numbers and facts. I’ve provided links to the two main websites here. I’ll provide other links at the end of this article.

StrongerTogether.com – The opposing view

Battle Over New School District Gets Ugly

OremsFuture.com – The supporting view

Battle Over New School District Gets Ugly

As mentioned before, in my mind this issue should be about data, numbers, what’s on the tax rolls, and how it all adds up for or against a new school district. How will the split effect current schools, class size, and teacher pay? How will it effect student learning, grades, and test scores? Getting those numbers has been harder than you might think as both sides work to spin them to their advantage, but what I’ve found so far has favored the spilt more than not.

Alpine School District, we’ll call it ASD going forward, has published numbers that honestly only they are using and they do a poor job showing how they came to those figures. It leaves the reader with only one option, take their word for it. Opponents say a new Orem School District (OSD) will result in a 50% tax increase! Nowhere can I find any data that even comes close to corroborating that claim. In fact the Utah Taxpayers Association analyzed that claim and said it was totally fabricated. They even said a tax increase for Orem residents didn’t look likely at all based on the current funding and how that funding would be divided if Orem voted to split.

Orem is an older city with declining enrollment, older schools are in need of seismic upgrades and repairs or rebuilding for safety in an earthquake. Orem complains that it pays far more to the district than it gets out. ASD claims the opposite to be true but then blames any reduction in funding on the declining enrollments. But what do the numbers really say? ST claims ASD subsidizes Orem schools to the tune of $21 million per year but offers no specific data showing how they come to that number. They have a graph showing a correlation between declining enrollments and costs per student, but no source citations for their graph. Again, you just have to take their word for it.

The Utah Taxpayers Association makes a good point regarding this claim by ASD. “…If the claims by “Stronger Together” were correct (in that the remainder of Alpine School District subsidizes Orem to the tune of millions of dollars per year) why would they so vociferously oppose letting the Orem tax base form its own district? If one part of an organization is a financial drain, why oppose letting that part go? The vocal opposition to this proposal leads one to believe that the opposite is true: the Orem tax base is valuable and in fact, contributes more than its fair share to the Alpine School District.”

The StrongerTogether website is heavy on claims and accusations but light on verifiable data to back them up. As I went though the website it became very clear to me that the folks at ASD are simply telling Orem residents to vote no because “we say so.”  Just go to their FAQ page and you’ll see what I mean. This website is rife with “What if’s” and fear inducing claims. Fear is a great motivator and this site uses it to the max. Everything from “teachers won’t stay in Orem” to “your taxes will go up by 50%.” ST continues to make the claim that Orem’s taxes will have to go up by 50% to pay for the new district even though that number has been mathematically debunked and proven to be a fabrication ST can’t explain. They just “say so.”

When you go to OremsFuture FAQ page you find their arguments FOR but also numbers. The site has sourced graphs and data. What a concept! After reading through each website it became very clear, the OSD proponents are data driven, letting the numbers make their arguments, while the opponent’s arguments are largely emotionally driven. StrongerTogether is full of emotional pleas and testimonials but lacking in real data that can be cross-checked and verified with outside sources.

Unfortunately, when emotions rank higher than facts things tend to go downhill fast and the side relying on emotions, loyalties, and relationships to win rather than the merits of its argument tends to do and say things that aren’t 100% true and accurate. That’s where this story and this issue has turned ugly and starts reading more like an espionage novel than a ballot issue.

As mentioned earlier, the StrongerTogether website claimed it “began as a group of parents concerned about Orem City’s approach to splitting from Alpine School District and creating an Orem-only district.” Not quite…

StrongerTogether is actually a registered PIC (political issues committee). GRAMA requests have since revealed that it was ASD board members Ada Wilson and Sara Hacken who are behind the formation of the PIC and have admitted to forming it while insisting they did so as private citizens, not as ASD Board Members. Kinda sounds like a conflict of interest to me, but I digress. An email sent to their founding board members was signed as “ASD Board Representatives Ada Wilson and Sara Hacken.” Take from that what you will.

Oddly Wilson and Hacken’s email was dated February of 2022. You have to ask yourself, why would they go through the hassle of creating a PIC when the Orem feasibility study hadn’t even been completed, before anyone knew how an OSD would effect anyone in Utah County or the ASD? To make things more murky, StrongerTogether leadership claims ST was formed AFTER the feasibility study was published. This claim was made again at a cottage meeting recently. But this is a provable lie.

Why? Well, they probably didn’t expect a GRAMA request to be filed allowing others to see their email communications with dates and times on them.

Ada Wilson also sent emails to all of the nine PTA heads in Orem. Ada Wilson was working to sway the PTA to go against the OSD proposal by discrediting the feasibility study 5 months before it was even published. In an email to Rob Smith, Cissy Rasmussen appears to admit that the claim “services will go down and taxes will go up” has no data upon which to substantiate the claim, but StrongerTogether continued to perpetuate that claim for months until the Utah Taxpayers Association debunked the claim. The emails and timelines acquired via the GRAMA request show that Ada Wilson and Alpine School District were actively working to discredit the feasibility study before it even began.

StrongerTogether claimed they asked and received permission from the regional PTA to forward a survey they had sent out to teachers in ASD, but there is a conflict of interest problem there as well. The founding board members of the StrongerTogether PIC are all members of the regional PTA. So basically they asked for and granted themselves permission. There are still founding members listed on the StrongerTogether website making the claim that ASD is not involved with StrongerTogether in direct conflict with acquired emails. Why all the secrecy? Why the obfuscation and denials? Well, there may be a few ethical and even legal reasons for that.

Ada Wilson was doing a lot of her communicating with ASD officials and administrators including Rob Smith ASD business administrator on their ASD official email accounts in violation of the Political Activities of Public Entities Act, Utah State Code 20A-11-1205. On February 17, 2022, David Stephenson the communications director for ASD sent an email to Ada Wilson and Sarah Hacken with the subject line: Proposed Messaging for Orem City. The email contained a full page of anti-split talking points, the same talking points used by StrongerTogether for months now.

Ada Wilson, Sara Hacken, and PTA members also used additional district resources to campaign against Prop 2. One email detailed how district employees helped Cissy Rasmussen bypass the district firewall to ensure the surveys reached the teachers. Based on emails acquired through a GRAMA request, it appears StrongerTogether, ASD, and the PTA used district time and resources to campaign against Orem’s proposal. The problem is private citizens don’t have access to the resources or carry the influence school board members do, which is one reason why this kind of behavior is illegal as well as unethical.

Was it ignorance? Was it overzealous loyalty to ASD that made these people do some of the things they did? Or was it money? ASD is pushing Prop 1 on the ballot right next to Prop 2. Prop 1 is asking taxpayers to approve a $595 million dollar bond. Now the fog starts to clear a bit. If Orem splits from ASD, how is that bond going to be paid for without tax increases on everyone else in the district? ASD knows that Orem, Lindon, Vineyard, and other east bench cities must be kept in the club for them to pay for this massive spending. A bond that will add another $116 million to Orem’s portion of ASD debt but return only $20 million for the construction of two new gymnasiums in Orem…wait what? Why does Orem need or want two new gyms? Are you starting to see why so many Orem residents are beginning to say yes to Prop 2 once they understand all of the facts?

StrongerTogether says teachers won’t stay in Orem if Prop 2 passes. It has come to my attention that teachers, who do not wish to be identified, were told by Prop 2 opponents they’ll lose their jobs if Prop 2 passes. Gee, I can’t imagine why teachers would be against it… Of course that’s nonsense and according to “math” OSD will be able to keep teachers at current pay and even increase pay. However, teachers do lose their jobs when ASD closes schools and it has closed and combined Orem schools in recent years. During an October 18th bond presentation, Kim Bird and David Stephenson from ASD announced that they are considering closing more title 1 schools in Orem. They are considering closing and consolidating seven more Orem schools. Talk about disruption to the students and putting teachers’ jobs in jeopardy. ASD is now saying that’s not true, but people who attended the bond presentation say otherwise.

In a recent debate, Ada Wilson said that they will be closing and “merging” more Orem schools. At the bond presentation, ASD confirmed that. How many more schools will we have left by the time Alpine finally decides to split the district on their terms? The split will eventually happen, but on whose terms is the question.

Here’s the cynical side of me. ASD has said publicly that a district split will eventually happen, but now is not the right time. Could their timing concerns have anything to do with holding on to Orem for a few more years and getting more of our schools closed (due to declining enrollment), selling the land, continuing to collect Orem tax dollars, and make sure Orem’s bank account is in play for the nearly $600,000,000 bond they are aggressively pushing to pass? Those reasons make a lot more sense to me than the ones they display on their website and in their literature. Especially knowing how it all started and the subterfuge to make Orem residents believe the opposition was just made up of concerned folks with kids in Orem schools. “Trust us” was their mantra. “We know best” when asked why. Sounds a lot like big government, doesn’t it?

On the StrongerTogether website it states, “At Stronger Together, we have no motive other than what is best for students and the community as a whole. In that spirit, many of us—average parents, grandparents, teachers, and taxpayers have spent months of our personal time to do a careful examination of the study.” I disagree. I believe they have 595,000,000 reasons to block Orem’s proposal and I believe the main backers and promoters of the NO on Prop2 campaign are, in fact, ASD insiders.

I don’t blame my neighbors and other residents of Orem for wanting to trust the Alpine School District. But this time, they’ve done and said things that go beyond what I deem appropriate and ethical behavior and have misled people with information and numbers that not one single certified financial analyst has verified. They have maligned individuals by name, spread rumors about the intentions and credibility of those who conducted the feasibility study, attacked the study itself, and then when the non-partisan Utah Taxpayers Association debunked their claims of increased taxes to fund OSD, they attacked the Utah Taxpayers Association with claims they were “bribed” and “paid off.” Those claims forced the UTA to come out and defend their position. You can read that here: Utah Taxpayers Association Response to Allegations of Bribery

I know most folks don’t have the time or even want to take the time to dig into this kind of stuff, but our kids and grandkids deserve the best possible education we can give them. To be totally honest that’s probably only available with Home Schooling in this day and age, of which I am an advocate. But I also know that’s not feasible for many parents. Based on what I’ve learned and the disturbing revelations regarding ASD’s handling of this issue and campaign of rumor and innuendo against it, I will be voting yes on Prop 2.

The cards are definitely stacked against it. Unfairly, in my opinion, but the chances of this proposition passing are slim. I hope I’m wrong, but if I’m not, I hope the people at Alpine School District show more ethical restraint and don’t become vindictive toward the parents, teachers, and Orem City leaders who believed an Orem School District was the right thing to do at the right time. I hope the school district realizes and admits to the value they have placed on Orem and treat its residents and schools accordingly.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind at this point, but if verifiable facts and figures matter, and people should seriously question the opposition and their rhetoric. Call the ASD offices and ask that they provide citable information that you can use to verify their financial claims, but don’t expect much, not even 3rd party financial analysts can do it.

I want to believe everyone in this fight is truly fighting for what’s best for the kids. We won’t really know until well after the election, but I will tell you this, I will be paying much closer attention to what ASD and our school board does going forward if Prop 2 is defeated.

I hope everyone will.

Other links in favor of Prop 2

Orem’s Future YouTube page

Orem School District Funding Calculations with John Barrick PhD, CPA

Yes on Prop2 Cottage Meeting – Part 1

Yes on Prop2 Cottage Meeting – Part 2

Source Materials

Transparent Utah

Utah State Tax Commission

Utah Board of Education

Orem City Transparency Portal

Alpine School District Business Services

DEC Consulting Services

Orem City Schools

Utah County Property Taxes – Treasurer

Other links that oppose Prop 2

Orem Teachers are voting No on Prop 2

Stronger Together Facebook Page

Survey of Teachers

I tried to find more sites that oppose Prop 2 or provide some 3rd party data to corroborate the claims of Stronger Together, but there aren’t any. The StrongerTogether website only links to other pages in its website. Sorry.


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