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Amid budget cuts, townsfolk of Boulder, Utah, rally to support tiny school, principal

Budget is tight; principal to be transferred

Published: Friday, May 28 2010 12:14 a.m. MDT

Third-grader Oakley Haws latches onto Boulder Elementary School principal/main teacher/secretary Roy Suggett while Oakley's brother, kindergartner Rycker Haws, listens as Suggett reads at the school in Boulder.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

BOULDER, Garfield County — A man strolls into the Burr Trail Grill and does a double take at Scott Brodie, one of the six parents of 10 students who attend the tiny elementary school in Boulder.

"Hey, isn't that my shirt?" the man remarks.

Brodie's yellow T-shirt has a VW bus on the front and reads: "Jerry Garcia, August 1, 1942 – August 9, 1995."

In the tight-knit town of Boulder in south central Utah, the approximately 200 residents participate in a community item exchange. If they are tired of their old clothes, CDs or books, they simply leave them on wooden shelves in an enclosed area behind the post office. People pick out any items they like.

Brodie grins at the man. He is pleased to be making good use of someone else's old shirt.

The item exchange is just one of many ways the people support each other in this remote Utah town. "That is the spirit of our community," said Boulder Mayor Bill Muse, 62.

Boulder townsfolk have always pulled together for the good of the community. But thanks to the recession, they fear one of the things they share, and value most, is being taken from them: the little schoolhouse where some of the town's children attend.

Last month, the Garfield School Board considered closing Boulder Elementary. While the board agreed to allow the school to remain open for the 2010-11 school year, principal/head teacher/secretary Roy Suggett, 52, is being sent to teach science at Bryce Valley High School in Tropic, about 65 miles away. The current teacher's aide, Colene Gardner, is to oversee Boulder Elementary this fall with the help of a new aide. That leaves two employees running the tiny school.

The school was spared this year, but parents expect they will continue to face the crisis annually. Next year they may not be so lucky.

Life in a small town

Nestled amid several national parks, Boulder is an artist's palette of red, orange, green, blue and yellow — sand, hills, mountains, rocks and streams. The town in Garfield County is out of the way — of most everything.

The community has always been cohesive and survived the isolation. Families who own chickens exchange eggs for other farm goods. People take orders from their neighbors and bring back supplies if they are going to make the sometimes treacherous 45-minute drive to the Escalante market, or the 2.5-hour journey to Fresh Market in Cedar City or a 2.25-hour trek to Super Walmart in Richfield, a drive that crosses a high mountain pass that is sometimes closed in winter.

The townspeople say if the school is closed next year, they will take charge and opt for a community home school, private school or charter school. They have a year to research options.

"We love to be remote, but it has its price," said Mayor Bill Muse, his wild, white hair sticking out of a brown cap with a fossil emblem on the front.

Boulder is a diverse community. There are many talented and educated people in the town who could teach the students. "We would do that before we would bus our children," Muse said.

The 6:30 a.m. bus ride to Escalante Elementary School is a one-hour trip on a skinny and dangerous "hog's back" road with steep grades and sheer drop-offs. The drive is a nightmare in clear conditions — let alone on snowy roads.

Many Boulder town leaders have penned letters to the school board decrying the potential closure of the school. Retired geology professor Keith Watts, Boulder mayor/farmer/retired horse trainer Muse and even Boulder LDS Ward Bishop H. Dell LeFevre have expressed their concerns, including the negative effect it would have on young families living in Boulder and those looking to move there.

"The school is the heart of Boulder," LeFevre wrote.

About 15 parents, educators and other Boulder residents made the 2.5-hour trip to attend the April board meeting in Antimony where they spoke out against the closure of the school.

Garfield School Board member Brian Bremner, 54, a county engineer who lives in Panguitch, says he doesn't know if the school will stay open or not. It all depends on the economy and the state Legislature. "Let's face it," he said. "We're looking in a crystal ball, and it's foggy."

Many people in Boulder aren't pleased with what they feel has been a lack of disclosure from the school board regarding decisions about the school and Suggett. "It's been frustrating," said Cheryl Cox, 53, who is running against Gladys LeFevre and two others for the seat that represents Boulder, Antimony and Hatch. It's the most candidates the area has seen in years.

"We need to bring everybody together and brainstorm solutions," Cox said. "This community works together."

Parents and students alike are sad to lose Suggett — and he isn't excited about the move himself, even though he lives an hour closer to Bryce Valley High than he does to the elementary school in Boulder. "I'm not happy about it," Suggett said. "This was something fun to do before retiring."

End of an era

As parents worry about next year, Suggett is saying goodbye to his 10 students on the last day of school today.

Boulder Elementary generally runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:38 p.m. four days a week except for a few half-day Fridays at the end of the year. The beige stucco school building in the central part of town has three classrooms, a kitchen, media center and principal's office.

Parents drive their kids to school since bus service was axed in January due to district budget cuts.

Dropping off his two children, Mat Thorn, a farmer/rancher who lives in Salt Gulch, 25 minutes out of Boulder, says he will opt for home schooling if Boulder Elementary closes. "At least then I will know what kind of education my kids are getting," he says, as he pulls away in his four-wheel-drive pickup truck.

Suggett welcomes the 10 students as they sit in a half-circle in the school's commons area for morning announcements.

Clad in brown pants, a green button-down shirt and hiking shoes, Suggett distributes the kids' winning ribbons from the recent Garfield District annual track meet. "We, as a little bitty school, won a lot of ribbons," the principal says.

The group of students, ages 5 to 11, troops over to the 8-foot-high, 12-foot-long map for current events. Suggett has one student point out Louisiana. He then talks about the oil spill that has resulted in "goopy, goopy oil-soaked birds."

Led by teacher's aide Gardner, the kids sing a song using compound words such as horseshoe, backpack and bearclaw.

Suggett tells brothers Oakley and Rycker Haws, "I want an update on your little colt. Let me know if you find it."

Suggett takes the fourth- through sixth-graders into room No. 3 for pre-geometry. The kindergarten through third-grade kids head to room No. 2 with Gardner to sit "criss-cross applesauce" on the colored carpet squares and go through the weather and days of the week, followed by math skills.

At times, the two teachers go from student to student, giving them different instructions depending on their grade level. This is one of the challenges of teaching multiple grades.

During a 15-minute morning break, the kids hit the swings and slides in the playground. "Mr. Roy, come push me," one of the girls hollers. The principal gives her a push. Minutes later he swings 5-year-old Noah Thorn around in a circle by his ankles.

Gardner wraps up the day by reading Noah's choice of stories, "Swimmy," about a fish who is the lone survivor after his school of fish is swallowed by a tuna. "Poor Swimmy," Noah sighs.

School is out. Running up to Suggett, wearing Wranglers, boots and a silver belt buckle the size of a tea saucer, third-grader Oakley throws his arms around the principal's legs in a bear hug.

As Julie Ketchum picks up her two children from school, she says she believes Suggett is a great role model for the male students.

Muse says, "He is just what you dream of for our situation here."

Brodie says, "Taking Roy jeopardizes the future of the school. If the school isn't going to meet the needs of the students, parents aren't going to send their kids there."

An uncertain future

While the townsfolk are big fans of Suggett, the school board members say they have the entire district to worry about during this time of tight budgets. Besides the hefty state budget cuts all school districts in Utah are facing, Garfield District also is dealing with the fallout of an alleged embezzlement. Former Garfield District assistant director of finances Justin Baugh, 38, is suspected of stealing up to $80,000 in public money.

District officials say Boulder Elementary is losing up to $26,000 annually by paying more for staff than it brings in. But some Boulder residents dispute that figure.

Boulder Elementary receives state per-pupil funding along with a state supplement for being a small school. "Roy is an experienced teacher and at a higher wage than a beginning teacher," Garfield Board member Bremner said.

Suggett makes approximately $55,000 for teaching plus a $4,000 stipend for his administrator's duties. He has a bachelor's degree in life science and a master's degree in the teaching of biology plus 60 semester units in various certifications including language development and life sciences. He has taught high school science for 20 years.

Bremner pointed out it would be extremely difficult to find an excellent high school science teacher to live and instruct in the little town of Tropic.

Educators are paid based on steps and lanes, which is based on experience and degrees or certifications. Suggett will still make $55,000 as a teacher at Bryce Valley High but not receive the $4,000 stipend.

Bremner said the Boulder students will receive an excellent education — regardless of whether their teacher has a master's degree. "How many parents in Salt Lake City would be happy with one teacher per five kids?" he said. "It doesn't have to do with certification."

Brodie, 47, said he feels the town is getting the short end of the stick. "It's disheartening."

Gardner is making approximately $9,000 annually as the school aide and could be paid up to $35,000 as the school's leader. The mom in her 40s taught elementary school in Jordan School District for four years and is working toward renewing her teacher's certification.

Last fall the community collected $2,000 through bake sales and other fundraisers to put toward a second teacher's aide to work along with Gardner. The district made up the difference to enable the new hire. But it looks like this fall there will simply be Gardner as principal along with a newly hired aide.

Bremner said there are several people in Boulder who would fit the bill of an aide. Some already volunteer at the school. They don't have to have a teaching license or a degree to be an aide — but they would need that to lead the school.

Bremner points out he has known less-effective teachers with plenty of academic degrees. And there are excellent teachers without higher degrees. "That's the kind of person we're looking for," he said.

But Brodie said, "Roy is the key to the success of our school."

e-mail: astewart@desnews.com TWITTER: AKStewDesNews

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