Despite living in close proximity to the small, but adequately staffed rural Vernon Elementary School, a handful of students and their families are choosing to attend Eureka Elementary in the Tintic School District.
Until this year taxpayer dollars funded bus transportation for those students, but a vote at the Tooele County School Board meeting Tuesday night put that to an abrupt halt.
“We’re all about parent choice. Nobody is questioning that,” said Scott Rogers, Tooele County School District superintendent. “If parents think sending them to Tintic is a better choice, then that’s their right. The issue is transportation.”
Seven elementary students and 16 secondary students are bused from Lofgren and Vernon to Tintic High School and Eureka Elementary under a former agreement between the two school districts. But during an audit at the Utah State Department of Education, the duplicate reimbursement charges were noticed and flagged.
Under state law the district looking to cross boundary lines to offer bus services must have a signed memorandum of understanding, or MOU, between the two districts. The document must be renewed each year in order for reimbursement to be approved by the state. When the MOU came this year, Rogers said he was immediately concerned.
“We don’t want the state to have to fund duplicate transportation,” he said. “If Tintic chooses to provide transportation, they will have to pay for it themselves.”
While Rogers is less concerned about secondary students choosing to attend school in another district, he is more concerned about the younger students.
“I personally don’t like kids traveling when they can go to a neighborhood school,” he said. “Enrollment says we are down to 21 students at Vernon Elementary. As a superintendent I’m looking at budget reductions. At what point can we afford to keep schools open in very small areas if enrollment keeps dropping?”
Budget concerns aside, Rogers said it leads one to ask “What are we not doing out there to make them want to stay?”
“Shame on us if we haven’t done a good job on providing education to the south part of our valley,” he said. “We need to go in and regroup and figure out what is wrong and provide an excellent education from here on out. I’m trying to get the staff to think about how we can make schools the most attractive they can be so that people will want to come and bring their friends.”
While he’s not sure how previous administrators handled this transportation issue in the past, Rogers just wants to move forward with what the school boards feels to be the best decision for the district and state funding at the current time.
“I don’t know what the history is and I’m trying not to get bogged down with it,” he said. “I’m just trying to make this the best district we can. I would like the kids in our county to come to our county schools. I feel a responsibility for them.”
With a new multi-million dollar high school being built at Dugway Proving Ground, Rogers said district students, especially those in the south part of the valley, will have access to — if they choose to exercise open enrollment rights — another competitive option if Tooele High seems too far away.
“Dugway is our highest functioning high school,” he said. “They are the ultimate gated community.”
Tooele County School Board members carried the same sentiments as Rogers.
“We’ve already got buses coming,” said board member Jeff Hogan. “If we approve this MOU then we’ve got buses coming from two different directions using taxpayer dollars. It’s my opinion that we shouldn’t be seeing MOUs for any of their buses. If they want to send them, that’s their choice, but taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for this when there is already a bus.”
The motion to deny the MOU was passed quickly and unanimously.
“In my mind competition is an OK thing,” said Rogers. “It makes us do our best. I personally am committed to making Vernon the best possible school and attract students from everywhere.”