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The City Journals

Canyons School District celebrates 10 years, has plans for more progress

Aug 19, 2019 12:19PM ● By Julie Slama

Canyons School District Superintendent Jim Briscoe serves a piece of cake on July1 that was shared with hundreds of patrons to celebrate the district’s 10-year birthday. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Ridgecrest third-grader Isaac Christensen wasn’t born yet when Canyons School District formed 10 years ago, but he was the first person to have a piece of the district’s 10th birthday cake when Canyons Board of Education members cut the cake for about 700 students, parents, volunteers and guests. 

“When we created Canyons School District, it was for the students we were serving as well as for our future students,” board member Mont Millerberg said. 

On July 1, 10 years to the date after board members paraded through the district in a school bus, current and former students and employees gathered at Sandy Amphitheater with community members to celebrate the school district and its efforts, including 13 construction projects approved with a 2010 bond and five already underway with a 2017 bond, as well as back-to-back salary bumps for teachers.

Canyons also has created a new response service team, which provides services to help students be safe and healthy and ready to learn, said director BJ Weller.

“It’s been amazing to see the innovative collaboration in the district leadership to cohesively provide resources and support for the schools and students,” he said.

Career and Technical Education Director Janet Goble also said partnerships with the Governor’s Office of Economics and Silicon Slopes are providing more opportunities for students with career interests.

While many departments and schools could boast about successes for students, it was the cohesiveness of board members under the board’s first president Sherril Taylor working with the community that made the transition from becoming a school district to opening the doors for students six weeks later, Millerberg said.

“We were at the buses at 11:30 p.m., June 30, 2009, and Jordan District wouldn’t allow us to put the stickers with the Canyons name on them until 12:01 a.m., July 1. It was a difficult split. We had voter approval at 52 percent, which in English meant, we had almost as many against wanting a new school district as we had for it,” he said.

The voting of a new district was exciting for Canyons, but for Jordan, Millerberg said, he was sure it was “like picking up pieces after an ugly divorce settlement.” 

That feeling lingered for years, and even today people talk about before and after “the split.”

Millerberg credits David Doty, the district’s first superintendent who was not able to attend the decade party, with the organization of the new district.

“He had the vision of organization and could put programs in place to help make the district a leader in the state,” he said. “(Current Superintendent) Jim Briscoe now has the love of employees and patrons around the district and is moving us forward. After 10 years not only are we better off, but Jordan School District is better off serving their students with the growth they have on the west side.”

One of the earliest supporters of the new district was former Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore Jr.

“I’m thrilled with the progress over the decade and Canyons becoming a trend setter in public education in Utah,” Cullimore said. “Early on, I was told my name was being printed to head a committee to become a district and I said great. I wanted it known that I wanted a new district with better schools for Cottonwood Heights. Schools are the heart of our communities. People were not wanting to live in Cottonwood Heights (then) because of the school conditions. Many of them needed new roofs and repairs, but the (Jordan) district wasn’t fixing them.”

Canyons Public Engagement Coordinator Susan Edwards remembers not understanding why a new district was needed 10 years ago.

“Mayor Cullimore invited me (and others) to his office and took the time to explain why and answer my questions,” she said. “Three hours later, I walked out, knowing everything and was fully on board.”

That means Edwards has done any task needed for the district, from waiting for delivery of the district’s first computers to maintaining relationships between city, community and district leaders. 

“We couldn’t fail,” Edwards said. “If we knew then what we know now, I’m not sure we would think we could do it. But we didn’t know, and we had 34,000 students counting on us so we had no choice not to succeed. We worked our guts out, but the mayors’ transitional teams and our Board of Education members had laid out great work for us to follow.”

During the May 13 celebration of Canyons School District’s 10-year birthday, patrons were able to view mementos of students’ accomplishments during the decade. (Julie Slama/City Journals)


However, not everyone was on board with the new district. One of the district’s current biggest supporters, Utah PTA Student Involvement Commissioner Betty Shaw, who served as region 17’s director, said she didn’t think it was necessary at the time to split Jordan District.

“I thought it was running well enough then, but maybe I didn’t get the big picture,” she said. “What has happened is a good thing and as soon as it was decided there would be two districts, PTA decided to move forward with it and make it a welcoming place.”

That warm, welcoming feel is part of what board member Steve Wrigley appreciates about the new district.

“Canyons has become a family and that is what was envisioned with it being a smaller district,” he said. “People care about each other, about their students, about their teachers, and it’s apparent with patrons being so gracious to trust us with two bonds being approved to build new buildings and fix schools in disrepair as well as support for teachers raises so we can retain and attract quality teachers.”

Wrigley said much credit needs to be given to the four former mayors: Cullimore, Midvale’s JoAnn Seghini, Sandy’s Tom Dolan and Draper’s Darrell Smith, who continued to fight the battle for the school district, for better schools and building new ones in their communities, even when it was threatened with a possible lawsuit.

“It was the district that almost wasn’t,” Wrigley said.

As part of the split, Canyons continues to pay on a 2003 bond, where “nothing from it is benefitting our schools,” Wrigley said.

Canyons Chief Financial Officer and Business Manager Leon Wilcox confirms that “We inherited issues with the split and have none of the good things from it, just all the bad,” he said in reference to paying $216 million in principal and interest.

“We still have about $32.4 million to pay in the next three years. We’d like to do more for our district and faster, but we need to pay off the great debt,” he said, comparing it to a divorce settlement where one has to pay all the mortgage, but doesn’t get the house or the kids. “Still, we’ve made tremendous progress from 10 years ago, fixing desperate needs in some schools and building schools in Draper where there was huge growth.”

There also has been safety vestibules added to schools, updated camera systems in school buses and schools, air conditioning and heating upgrades and several other projects from turf to parking lots around the district. 

Current Midvale Mayor Robert Hale, who was at the July event, said he appreciates the district keepings its word and investing in school children. Midvale already has two new schools — Midvale Elementary and Midvale Middle — and two are underway — Midvalley Elementary and Hillcrest High.

“Kids are our future and Canyons is putting a big investment in them,” he said. “It’s exciting to benefit from these 10 years of a new district; we’re moving in the right direction.”

Midvale Middle Assistant Principal Bryan Rudes, who joined the July celebration, agrees.

“My favorite thing is all the support Canyons School District provides — instructional for both teachers and coaches, academic, social and responsive services for students, inclusive as a community school, all with the effort of best serving our students,” he said. 

Former board president Taylor attended the May 13 10-year celebration at Jordan High, which featured student performances from across the district and mementos of students’ success during the past decade.

“It’s good to look back and see the great improvements we’ve made,” he said. “It was very rewarding to work with a lot of good people doing a lot of great work that will benefits kids a long way into the future.”

Current Board President Nancy Tingy agrees.

“It’s important to celebrate our achievement and reflect on our accomplishments,” she said. “Our district was born by a community effort and they came together for a common goal: a high-quality school system. We thank everyone associated with the district in making a huge difference. It’s our time to look back and reflect as well as to celebrate and recommit to our ideals in Canyons School District for our families now and in the future. We celebrate our excellence and strive for excellence.”