Dealing with Decline

By Glenn Cook

Peggy Jo Kennett is facing a dilemma no school board member wants: an adolescent boom and bust -- at the same time.

The 74,000-student Jordan School District, located just outside Salt Lake City, is projected to add 16,000 schoolchildren over the next decade. But this month, Kennett and her fellow board members have to decide whether to close as many as 15 schools.

The reason? While Jordan is dealing with extremely rapid growth in its northwestern and southwestern regions, the opposite side of the district has seen its student population decline. Not rapidly, but steadily. Each year, as the area's population ages, neighborhood elementary schools have lower enrollment and higher overhead costs -- a combination the district can't live with for long.

"It's an emotional issue," Kennett says. "People can understand that we as a board have fiscal responsibilities to all of our taxpayers, and not all of our taxpayers have kids in school. At the same time, the people who live in those areas are very much in favor of neighborhood schools. They don't want their local school to be closed."

Shifts in enrollment are subject to a host of factors -- aging populations, changes in the job market, increased school choice options, neighborhood development and decay, and an increasingly fluid and mobile student population. None are mutually exclusive, and combinations can be found in districts where student numbers have dropped.

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