Education

Population Boom Puts Pressure on Utah’s Schools

By Alex Heard — May 05, 1982 6 min read
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While most state and local education officials are still contending with the consequences of long-term enrollment declines that will continue in many states over the next five years, Utah officials are preparing for a student population that is expected to grow by 100,000 by 1987--one of the highest projected growth rates in the country.

And they are finding the expanding enrollments can also cause problems.

Enrollment in Utah schools next fall will be 364,000. That figure is expected to increase by 27 percent--to 464,000--by 1987.

There are two reasons for the large growth projection, according to Denise P. Lindberg, a community-education specialist in the state office of education. State officials believe the development of the state’s oil-shale, tar-sand, coal, and related power industries will significantly expand the population. In addition, they point out, Utah’s predominantly Mormon population has a birth rate that is twice the national average.

Only the first kind of growth poses immediate problems for schools, the officials say.

Ms. Lindberg has been working with communities that are facing the most rapid growth, including a region in northeastern Utah called the Uintah Basin, where the total population is expected to double in the next 10 years. That estimate, she said, is based on the projections about and commitments to the region made by various energy companies.

And in western Utah, some 4,500 construction workers are expected to arrive in the region to begin work on the Intermountain Power Project, the largest coal-fired power plant in the United States.

Plant to Draw People

The state education department estimates that the plant, along with ''secondary-industry and service workers,” will bring 10,000 to 12,000 people to a town, Delta, Utah, that currently has a population of 2,400.

This rapid growth is posing the same types of problems for Utah as for other energy-boom areas of the country, according to Ms. Lindberg. ''Lots of things happen very quickly in a situation like this,” she said. For example:

Land values escalate rapidly in boom areas, making it impossible for a school board to make some purchases it had planned. Also, local officials often are reluctant to build new structures in anticipation of booms that may only be temporary.

There is a shortage of highly trained workers, and because school employees are more highly educated than are many people who flock to a boom area, they are frequently hired away from their schools by the companies.

It is difficult to attract teachers to isolated rural areas--particularly, Ms. Lindberg said, in “a state that has a heavy impact of Mormon culture.”

Teachers who do come, or who stay, have difficulty affording the rapidly inflating cost of housing. In the Uintah Basin, Ms. Lindberg said, housing prices have tripled in the last eight years.

There is a high turnover in the student population. It is not uncommon, Ms. Lindberg said, to have a 50-to-75-percent student turnover rat during a single school year in a boom district.

The newcomers are often shunned by natives and react to their isolation sometimes with hostility. “Several months ago,” Ms. Lindberg said, “I was sitting in a restaurant in the Basin, and I saw these guys with tee-shirts that said ‘Oil Field Trash and Proud of It.”’

Solutions Sought

Solutions to the problems caused by the boom are being sought at the state and local levels, Ms. Lindberg said. In its 1981 session, the Utah legislature passed a law requiring major developers to submit to the state and to local governments “impact-mitigation plans,” which iden-tify the effects that their projects might have on local services, including the school system.

Gary R. Tomsic, deputy director of the department of community and economic development, said that although the law only requires that companies submit these plans and does not give the state and local governments any authority to deny permits based on what is in them, companies are “taking their responsibilities to districts very seriously.”

Prepayment of Taxes

One provision in the laws allows companies to prepay property taxes in school districts; the Deseret Generation and Transmission Company has done so in the Uintah Basin school district.

The state is also trying to negotiate outright grants from industry in support of the schools.

“We’re trying to communicate very clearly to companies the need for private-sector cooperation,” Mr. Tomsic said.

The state also collected $48 million from $125 million paid by the White River Oil Shale Company to the federal government to lease federal tracts “Ua” and “Ub” in the Uintah Basin, because at the time the leases were granted in 1974, federal law granted royalties of 37 percent to the state. (Today the goverment grants royalty payments of 50 percent to states for leasing of federal lands.) The federal government owns 67 percent of Utah.

With interest of $16,000 per day, that amount has already grown to $50 million. Utah Gov. Scott M. Matheson appointed a task force to recommend ways of using the money; he is expected to consider the group’s suggestions soon.

Mr. Tomsic, who is a member of that group, said its recommendations call for the legislature to create a trust fund with the money. Interest from the fund, expected to be $6 million per year, could be distribut-ed to state agencies and local governments for services in the form of loans or bond guarantees.

At the local level, Ms. Lindberg said, the state has helped establish a process of self-directed community planning involving citizens’ committees working with local boards of education.

In the Uintah Basin, for example, the local committee considered--but dropped as impractical for now--a year-round school plan. This year, the district is using double sessions to handle the increased student load.

Philip E. Ellis, superintendent of the Uintah School District in Vernal, said that the student population in his district increased by over 10 percent during the past year to a total of 6,000. Based on industry-growth estimates, he expects an additional 1,600 students by the end of the 1985 school year.

The main problem he foresees is recruiting and retaining teachers. During the next five years, he also hopes to build three to five schools in his district, depending partially on the amount of money he receives from industry and from the state’s share of the White River Company’s leasing payments.

Community Task Force

Mr. Ellis thinks the priorities and suggested programs generated by his area’s community task force will help. Because the task force pointed out, for example, the need to raise teacher salaries in the district, the district is raising salaries by 17 percent next year; the starting salary will be $13,500.

Reed Searle, manager of government relations for the Intermountain Power Agency, said that at the peak of a $6.5-billion construction project, Delta--a town about 10 miles from the plant site--will grow to 7,500.

When the plant is completed and begins operating, it is estimated that 3,500 people will remain in the town. Mr. Searle said his company has estimated that 1,180 new students will enroll in the district during the peak period.

Intermountain has provided the local school district with a $9-million grant and loan package that, along with existing revenues, will be used to build a new elementary school, a new middle school, and an addition to the existing high school.

The plant should be finished by 1990, Mr. Searle said. The building plans are meant to meet long-term needs, and the district will accommodate the peak population with temporary facilities.

Exploding Population

In his education “Agenda for the 80’s,” released in February, Governor Matheson cited state board of education studies indicating that by 1990 the state will require $2 billion in construction funds to house the state’s exploding school population. The total state budget last year was $1.7 billion, including $600 million for public education.

Currently, the state does not play a major role in school construction. “We contribute only about $15 million per year” to school construction, said Alene E. Bentley, the Governor’s press secretary. The Governor is in favor of helping fund new buildings, she added, only when he is sure the local districts have exhausted their own taxes and “local alternatives,” including existing structures.

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1982 edition of Education Week as Population Boom Puts Pressure on Utah’s Schools

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