Published November 10, 2023 at 2:00 AM MST

Utah public schools saw a decline in enrollment this fall compared to the previous school year, and a recent report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute projects the downward trend will continue for the next decade.

Andrea Brandley, the institute’s senior education policy analyst, said this growth isn’t specific to the youth population, but to which parts of the state are growing overall, often because of available jobs or housing.

“It is more difficult for areas that are already very densely populated to continue growing versus areas that have just more space and more housing availability to grow,” Brandley said.

That includes places like Wasatch County, which was the state’s fastest-growing county between 2010 and 2020. Wasatch County School District Superintendent Paul Sweat said the district is already experiencing the challenges that come with growth, like outgrowing its facilities.

In 2022, Wasatch High School, currently the district’s only high school, had 2,509 students enrolled. That’s 499 more students than its capacity, according to the district.

“What’s going on over there right now at the high school is not fair to our kids. If you stepped into the common areas or down the halls, it’s just shoulder-to-shoulder in there,” Sweat said.

When schools are overcrowded, Sweat said, students start feeling like a “number” and it hurts the sense of community.

The district is currently building a new, second high school that is slated to open at the start of the 2026-2027 school year. Sweat gets excited thinking about the opportunities that a new high school will provide.

At the start of the last school year, the district had 8,793 students. So to add more than 4,000 students by 2060, like the Gardner Policy Institute projects, is a sizable jump, Sweat said.

Once they have two high schools open, Sweat hopes they “will last for a very long time to take care of our high school population.” But the district is also thinking about building new elementary and middle schools in the future.

The district created a facilities master plan in 2022 in response to the growth. It recommended creating a new high school as soon as possible, as well as a new elementary school in 5-6 years and a new middle school in 10-15 years.

Sweat said the district is securing land where it can build schools in the future.

Up north, the Cache County School District is also preparing for growth. Assistant Superintendent Tim Smith said they’ve grown by 4,197 students over the last decade, and that 11 of the district’s 17 elementary schools are operating above capacity. The district is asking taxpayers to pass a bond to help pay for some of those costs.

Smith said trying to anticipate and respond to where the district will grow is sometimes difficult and puts a strain on the school system, but “We’d rather be a growing district than a shrinking district.”

The Kem C. Gardner report said growing districts “may want to plan for needed infrastructure, increased staffing, and a potential increased demand for charter schools.” Utah County in particular is projected to grow “immensely, adding nearly 75,000 school-aged children by 2060.” But the report points out that individual districts within that county may need to come up with different plans given land availability.

Sweat wishes that the growth in Wasatch County wasn’t as “fast and furious” as it has been, but he said it’s not his job to control growth.

“The school district has to react,” Sweat said. “I also know that we have a responsibility to do the best we can for our students.”

Even with Utah’s falling K-12 enrollments, some districts are prepping for growth