Orem City Council members express concern over school district split resolution

A boundary map of the proposed Orem School District. Orem residents will vote on a potential city district in November. (Photo courtesy of the City of Orem)

Several members of Orem City Council expressed concerns over the Oct. 11 resolution outlining council support to create a new Orem School District.

The Orem City Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday in favor of a resolution outlining their support to separate from the current district.

Orem schools are part of Alpine School District, the largest school district in Utah. In August, the Orem City Council voted to put the creation of an Orem School District on the November ballot. On November 8, registered voters will decide whether or not to separate from the Alpine School District.

Concerns regarding the resolution

Council member Tom MacDonald voted against the resolution and expressed concern about the fact that there was a resolution vote held on Tuesday.

“First of all, once something’s on the ballot, we are supposed to stay away from it. As a city council, there are laws of what we can and cannot do,” MacDonald said. “I thought we danced ever too closely to the line, if not crossing it by basically making campaign speeches.” 

The city council voted in August to put the question of an Orem School District on the ballot. The resolution written in October expressed support in forming a new school district and outlined facts regarding a split from Alpine School District.

“I believe we should be neutral,” council member Debby Lauret said in the Oct. 11 meeting. “While technically we are within the bonds of the state statutes I believe it violates the spirit of the law.”

The majority of the meeting was recorded and posted on YouTube, but the portion of the meeting where the city council discussed and voted on the resolution was only made available to the public if a request was made through the city recorder.

At the end of the recording, Orem Mayor David Young said, “For this part of the meeting, similar to what we had two weeks ago, we were advised by legal counsel that we had to essentially continue the meeting but take off the live streaming, so at this time, we will turn off the live streaming and then we’ll move into the public comments.”

The Orem City Council held a public forum and then passed the resolution regarding Orem’s Proposition 2 about creating an Orem School District after the video stopped.

When asked why the resolution was not live streamed, MacDonald said, “Because they were fearful they might be breaking the law, I think. You see, you can’t — once again, I can have a personal opinion for or against —  but I cannot use city time and resources to campaign for something, and I thought that’s what they were doing [on Tuesday].”

MacDonald said the city council also passed a resolution two weeks ago outlining their opposition against a proposed $595 million bond from Alpine School District. This portion of the meeting was also not live streamed.

According to Utah Code Section 20A-11-1203, “a public entity may not publish on the public entity’s website an argument for or against a ballot proposition, a proposed initiative, or a proposed referendum.”

Young discussed why the public forum and resolution portion of the meeting was not published on official Orem channels.

“We basically can’t use the city’s backing per se to be for or against a political decision for something that’s on the ballot. And so the city hasn’t put either of those resolutions up, but they’re out there floating around,” Young said. “Because we can’t put it on the city website, it pretty much just has to get out there organically.”

The Utah code does not prohibit an elected or appointed official from using research, information, or arguments “for the purpose of advocating for or against a ballot proposition, proposed initiative, or proposed referendum via a website, or another medium, not owned or controlled by the public entity.”

Claims of misinformation associated with Orem Proposition 2

Young said that the city council decided to do a resolution to combat misinformation regarding the potential formation of the Orem School District. 

“I want those facts to be out in the public and I want people to be informed if they’re gonna vote because if you’re not informed and you’re voting, it’s pointless,” Young said.

“Stronger Together” is a local group advocating to stay with the Alpine School District. Their website said that Orem property taxes would go up by 50% if Orem became its own school district. However, the Utah Taxpayers Association recently released a report saying that those claims were false. 

“With the proper taxable property values in the proposed district and conservative estimates of state funding and federal funding, it is reasonable to conclude that an Orem school district would very likely have sufficient revenue to support itself without the need for a property tax increase,” the Utah Taxpayers Association said. They said that an independent feasibility study came to the same conclusion.

City council member LaNae Millett said there has been a lot of misinformation out on social media.

“I really felt it was important … to put this resolution forth,” Millett said. “That our citizens could read and could have some factual information in front of them about this Prop 2.”

Support and opposition of the proposition

In January, Orem city officials announced the start of a study examining the impact of creating a new school district. The city hired DEC Consulting Services to conduct a feasibility study. The study concluded that it be financially feasible to create a new school district.

MacDonald said he believes that the information in the feasibility study is incomplete and that a split from Alpine School District will raise taxes. “The study was flawed and our interpretation of their findings have been flawed,” MacDonald said. “I just don’t think we have the information in this study. We need more information before you make a split.”

In the public forum section of the meeting, Margaret Black, an Orem citizen and former city council member said she had concerns about the process going on with the Orem city council and Orem Proposition 2. She said that the feasibility study selection chose a company biased towards an Orem school split and that was not the most qualified.

“What this council has been doing smacks of, at best, of dubious ethics and it seems to me that email, texts, or phone calls between four members while not appearing together still accomplishes the same thing as meeting as a quorum,” Black said.

Black also said it does not show respect for the duty and right of other council members to discuss and voice opinions. “It displays a dangerous lack of transparency,” she said.

According to Orem City Council PTA President Julie Walker, the official position of every PTA chapter in Orem opposes the Orem proposition to create an Orem School District.

“We are not against a split. We believe that Alpine School District should be split. But we want a bigger than just the one city split. We want, we would like to see four or five high schools in our split district,” Walker said.

Walker discussed how having more cities as part of the split would give Orem the resources and funds to have their own shared services and facilities.

“Instead of making this a contentious divorce, where one city splits off angrily, we would like it to be more of a collaboration with the city’s multiple cities and the school district working together,” Walker said.  

Millett voted in favor of the resolution. Millett said the feasibility study shows that a split from Alpine School District is doable. 

“To me, the teachers are taken care of, we will have a good tax base to help remedy the issues in our schools, and we can turn our attention and our money to help the kids in Orem.” Millett said. “It’s been talked about for over 20 years in Orem and it’s time we take some action here.”

Young said he hopes people will get informed and make their own decisions.

“We’re just gonna hope that people get informed and then, you know, vote whatever they feel is best for their family,” he said.

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