An Open Letter to the Provo School Board

Dear Provo School Board,
We respectfully request that you allow us to complete the process of challenging your decision to bond to relocate Dixon Middle School. We believe Utah Code § 20A-7-602 gives us the right to challenge the decision and clearly lays out the steps that we must take, as well as the steps the County and the School District must take.
In October of 2021, we sent you a letter, drafted by our attorney, explaining why we believe we have the right to challenge the decision using the process laid out in Utah Code § 20A-7-602. We were hoping to work out this disagreement about the process with you – to either have you explain why Utah Code § 20A-7-602 does not apply to your decision or to work out how we can proceed with the signature-gathering with the requisite cooperation from the District. Other than a social media post criticizing the letter and a few Board Members telling us that your lawyers had advised you not to discuss the issue with us, we have not heard anything back from the Board or the District.
Though our intention was to have an open conversation, we see now that involving an attorney complicated having such a conversation. We were shocked when we were told, more than a week after carefully following the process laid out in Utah Code § 20A-7-602, that the District believed we were following the wrong process and that the clock had been ticking on the process defined in a different provision in Utah Code (17D-2-502). Not knowing what to do, we hired an attorney to review the situation. Please understand we are ordinary citizens and have never needed to navigate these kinds of legal issues.
The attorney we retained provided us with a legal review of both § 20 and § 17D and how they apply to the bonding decision. According to the review, the District was correct in identifying Utah Code § 17D-2-502 as one process, but there is nothing in the code that says it is the only way to challenge the decision. The recently revamped process defined in Utah Code § 20A-7-602 allows citizens to challenge any legislative action. This is the process that we were following, and we met every deadline. Unless you can provide us with a sound legal reason why Utah Code § 20A-7-602 is not available to us, we ask that you fulfill your responsibilities in the process so we can move ahead.
We hope you understand that we genuinely believe that rebuilding Dixon Middle School at its current location is in the best interest of Provo City and the education of the children here. We acknowledge that, as a body, you have come to a different conclusion, and we respect the Board’s role in determining where the school should be rebuilt. You have been duly elected by the people of Provo to make that decision. That is part of the process as defined by State law. We hope that the Board can respect that the referendum procedure is also part of that State-defined process and we hope the District will cooperate as we exercise our legal rights. We don’t want you to view us as “the opposition.” Please do not see engaging us in a conversation as “providing the opposition a detailed description on how to legally oppose the bond.” That is not the Provo Way. The Provo Way would be to see us as concerned parents and citizens just trying to participate in the process as the law allows and to help us understand the complex legal process.
Please engage with us in finding a resolution that doesn’t disenfranchise the people. Allowing us to complete the signature-gathering process, as defined in Utah Code § 20A-7-602, will reveal if there is enough public concern to justify taking the question to the voters in a referendum, or it will if there is sufficient support among the public for the relocation to take place.
Thank you for your service and your consideration of this request,


Why we are pursuing legal action

The Provo City School District has previously proposed to relocate Dixon Middle School, but the bond that included that proposal was soundly rejected by the voters of Provo.

The School District is now pursuing the relocation using an obscure bonding method that bypasses voters. The School Board voted 4-3 to bond for the relocation without taking it to the voters.

Fortunately, Utah provides its citizens with a referendum process that allows voters to challenge any legislative decision by putting it on the ballot if enough voter signatures can be collected. Many people are familiar with the process because we have had several attempted referendums at both the state and local level in the past few years. It has a high bar for signature gathering, and an established process with dozens of steps laid out that must be met by both the government and the referendum sponsors. It is a general process that can be used to challenge any legislative action by a local government.

Unfortunately, the Provo City School District has decided that they are just going to ignore us, despite our taking all the necessary legal steps to initiate the referendum process.

Provo School District claims that an obscure referendum pathway from 1953 is the only method to challenge their actions. Their alternative has much higher signature requirements, shorter deadlines, and none of the procedures or required support of the modern referendum process. They are intentionally ignoring the modern established legal procedure in the hopes that they can quickly push through their vision against the will of the community.

The school district has repeatedly failed to respond to statutorily required communications. They have been unwilling or unable to answer even simple questions we have asked. When we tried to have a simple conversation about what format they wanted signatures presented to them, it took 3 days and multiple in person meetings to get a response, and when they finally provided something to us, they had added in additional requirements not found in any code.

We have asked to meet with them to discuss our concerns and have asked them not to proceed with the relocation until we can resolve the disagreement. We have asked them to take the steps that the state law requires them to take so we can proceed with our right to challenge their decision and refer the question to the voters. But they have refused to meet with us and they have indicated that they are moving forward with the relocation.

The reason why the school district went with a municipal bond instead of the traditional general obligation bond was to avoid going to the voters. Their plan now is to push through with bonding and begin construction before legal challenges can be heard. The school district wants to frame the situation as our group having failed from lack of support, when the real reason this process has been delayed is their own obstructionism.

Unfortunately this means we now have to engage in an expensive legal battle in order to participate in the political process. We have retained experienced counsel (Parr Brown Gee & Loveless) but we will need continued financial support going forward. If you are able to contribute to this effort, please consider donating.

Top Ten Reasons to Sign the Referendum Petition

1. You support quality education for our students.
2. You support strong, livable neighborhoods across Provo.
3. You support the wise use of tax funds — both school and city funds.
4. You feel the school district should listen to the will of the people.
5. You care about clean air and sustainable growth in the community.
6. You are concerned with the mega-school trend.
7. You want traditional public schools to remain competitive with charter schools.
8. You are concerned about the ability of low-income students to get to school.
9. You don’t want Provo to repeat the mistakes of other cities which lead to urban blight.
10. You don’t want more traffic and more congestion.

Read on for context and sources:

#1: Old buildings don’t equate to poor education – just ask the Ivy League. Large lots don’t equate to good education. Taken together, #2, #6, #7, and #8, make a strong case why students at Dixon Middle School and across the District will have a better education if the School is rebuilt on site.

#2: Decaying, blighted areas anywhere in Provo negatively impacts all of Provo. They particularly affect the School District, which depends on property taxes to educate our children. Older neighborhoods, with small lots, often generate more property tax per acre than more affluent areas. But if they become blighted, they can become a drag on the whole city and a burden to the School District. Provo is blessed with many different areas with their own distinct character. West Provo is a wonderful place to live and has several advantages. Central Provo is also a wonderful place to live and has several different advantages. Many people choose to live in west Provo to get away from the hustle and bustle – to get away from it all. Many people choose to live in central Provo to be in close proximity to their daily destinations – to be in the middle of it all. This explains why most people near the Dixon site don’t want to see the school leave and most people near the Footprinters site don’t want to see it come. The vast majority of people who live near both sites are against the move. West Provo will continue to attract families as it develops, even without a middle school located at Footprinters. Will central Provo still be able to attract families with higher prices for older, smaller homes if the main benefits of living in central Provo are taken away? In this Deseret News Editorial Board essay1, they argue that the best way to fight the urban decay seen around the country is to attract families into the urban core. The best way to attract families is with family-friendly infrastructure, they say. Schools are the ultimate family-friendly infrastructure.

#3: Because the City and the District share the same boundaries, it doesn’t matter which entity pays for an expense, it costs us the same. It will cost the District the same to rebuild Dixon onsite or relocate the middle school to the Footprinters site. But it will NOT cost Provo City the same. The School District made a big deal about how Provo High would cost the same whether it was rebuilt on-site or relocated. What was never considered or fully accounted for was the added costs to the City. In a June 11th, 2019 committee meeting, the Provo City Engineer estimated that the price tag for the road infrastructure to accommodate the Provo High relocation was $15,000,000 and growing. And that’s just for roads! New infrastructure will similarly be needed if Dixon Middle School is relocated. This isn’t shown in the School District’s presentations, but that doesn’t mean it will cost you any less. And don’t forget that if the school is moved, a historic but failing building will be left behind. How long will it sit vacant until they are ready to spend the millions of dollars to repurpose it?

#4: The people of Provo support public education. In 2014, more than 70% of voters approved a $108M PSCD bond2. The people approved of the District’s plan and were willing to fund it. But by 2019, public support for the PCSD plan had collapsed. They proposed a bond that included the relocation of Dixon Middle School to the edge of development. This time voters said “NO!” by a 2:1 margin3. Many voters had felt betrayed by the surprise decision to move Provo High, something that wasn’t discussed when proposing the 2014 bond. In 2020, the public again voiced their displeasure with the direction of the School District, and their crusade to relocate Dixon Middle School, by electing two new School Board members over the incumbents who were running for re-election. The public does not support the direction of the current School Board and does not support relocating Dixon Middle School. This was evident in the School District’s public information meetings regarding Dixon Middle School over the past year. Now the District is pursuing an obscure bonding method that doesn’t require a vote of the public. This is the same method that the District threatened to use if the public didn’t approve the 2020 bond vote to rebuild Timpview High (on-site). “This means that the board will borrow the money at a higher interest rate to rebuild the school if this bond does not pass. So please vote for this bond because it will keep our children safe and will reduce the amount we end up paying in taxes.”4 Well now, in 2021, the School Board isn’t even attempting to take the question of relocating Dixon Middle School to the voters, they are just jumping to the same method that they warned us of if we didn’t approve their 2020 bond request. The people of Provo don’t want Dixon moved, but the School Board and District aren’t listening.

#5: The tendency of school districts across the country to make short-sighted decisions to move schools existing in established neighborhoods out to the edge of development has been identified over the decades as one of the worst contributors to sprawl growth and as a devastation to older historic neighborhoods. Taking schools out of walkable neighborhoods and putting them on the edge of town in more auto-centric neighborhoods also causes more driving for everyone.

#6: PCSD has stated that the optimal size of middle schools is between 800 and 900 students. The national consensus5 is that middle schools should have “no more than 500 students.” Centennial Middle School was built in 1996 with a capacity of 600 students. It now has an enrollment of around 1200 students. The proposed rebuild of a relocated Dixon Middle School will be built for 1200 students. Proponents who want to relocate the middle school praise the site for giving room to expand in the future. Just how big do we want our schools to get? We can rebuild Dixon onsite, and then build a new middle school near Footprinters park in the future when it is justified by new students. Smaller schools are more expensive per student but less expensive per graduate, a clear indication of the improved quality and value in education offered by smaller schools6. Not only that, but “small schools are safer, have higher teacher retention rates, have higher parent involvement, greater academic success, and produce more active citizens.”6
#7: Charter schools have their place, but we need the School District to offer good traditional school options. When the District schools are inconvenient, particularly to children in families that have a limited ability to drop off and pick up their kids, charter schools become a more attractive option, diverting more students, and taking their per-pupil State funding with them.

#8: Students from low-income, often single-parent families are more likely to face challenges getting to and from school. Parents may be working multiple jobs or may lack automobiles. The ability to walk to school is more than just a convenience for these students. Come observe all the students who drop their younger siblings off at Timpanogos Elementary before walking to Dixon Middle, then pick them up after school. After-school activities present a particular challenge to many low-income students who live outside of a reasonable walking distance. Buses – even late ones – don’t compare with the flexibility of being able to walk to school.

#9: Baltimore, Seattle, and San Francisco are great American cities named in the Deseret News Editorial Board’s essay1 for having dystopian urban cores. If you think that Provo too should have a blighted core, then there is probably no better step to achieving this than relocating Dixon Middle School. The Deseret News calls for prioritizing “family-friendly infrastructure projects” in order to revitalize urban cores. Disinvestment of family-friendly infrastructure like schools surely is the prescription, then, for following the path of other American cities to get a ghetto of our own.

#10: Case in point, Exhibit A: The nightmare every morning and afternoon around the new Provo High location (compared with the old, central location) faced by students, parents, and neighbors alike. Cars clog the roads around Provo High and back up, sometimes as far away as Geneva Road. Do we really want to repeat that mistake?

1 https://www.deseret.com/opinion/2019/7/31/20755657/in-our-opinion-trump-got-one-thing-right-about-baltimore
2 https://ssl.utahcounty.gov/dept/clerkaud/elections/ElectRslts/documents/2014Gfinalsummary.pdf
3 https://ssl.utahcounty.gov/dept/clerkaud/elections/ElectRslts/2019General/Countywide11-19.pdf
4 https://provo.edu/news/pro-bond-statement/
5 Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School: Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl. NPS, National Trust for Historic Preservation. Smart Growth. (https://www.americantrails.org/files/pdf/whyjohnnywalkschool.pdf)
6 https://smallschoolscoalition.org/the-cost-of-small-schools-a-white-paper/