PROVO — For more than 100 years, Maeser Elementary School has welcomed skipping and smiling children into inviting classrooms for daily lessons.

But the historic building's doors may soon close forever.

Provo City School District's Board of Education voted Saturday to raze the building if a new tenant with enough cash to pay for a needed $300,000 safety upgrade of the facilities and a $100,000 yearly lease isn't found by July 15.

If such a tenant isn't found by summer, said Richard Sheffield, president of Provo's school board, the two-story building will be demolished and public park will be built on the land.

The school district will retain ownership of the central-city block in case another school in downtown Provo is warranted in the future, Sheffield said. For now, the land is not for sale.

"I think this is a moment of pain for all of us," said Ann Woolley, one of the four panelists who voted to tear down Maeser if no other viable use is proffered to the board.

But the district faced the possibility of the school standing empty in June when books and desks are removed from the building on 500 North. This fall, the Maeser student body will attend the new Spring Creek Elementary in southeast Provo.

The school was largely paid for by a 1997 $22.5 million general obligation bond issuance. Voters approved the bond issuance with the understanding that a new school would be built to replace the aging Maeser, which was built in 1898 and is said to be the oldest operating school in Utah.

Greg Hudnall, Provo's student services director, led a citizens committee last year on a hunt for new occupants.

He worked for more than 800 hours with parents and property owners who feared the school's closure would dampen a budding resurgence in the once-downtrodden neighborhood and cause property values to plummet.

Hudnall said an empty building would call to vandals, further eroding the neighborhood. The district also would incur the cost of 24-hour security, required by the insurance provider.

Since the decision to build Spring Creek was made in 2000, only Provo-based Meridian School has made a bid to lease the property. Board members rejected the offer because it was deemed too low and the district would have been required to pay repair and liability costs if pipes or utilities malfunctioned.

Developers haven't sought the Maeser site because it would be difficult to turn a profit. The cost of the old building and land would be more than what a developer could earn from the few single-family dwellings that could be built there.

Provo's zoning codes also prohibit construction of apartments or condominiums, Hudnall said.

Sandy Packard was the lone board member to vote against tearing down Maeser. "I hate to see the building razed," said Packard. "I think it is a big mistake."

Packard said Joaquin Elementary, an old school adjacent to Brigham Young University, needs more work to meet seismic codes than Maeser.

The district could sell Joaquin to developers for up to $12 million, she said, and that money could be used to pay for a complete renovation of Maeser.

Neighborhood activist Melissa Massey wants to preserve Maeser. Either a charter school or a children's museum would be ideal for the building and neighborhood — but that much money isn't found easily under such a tight deadline, she said.

"I'm convinced there is a good use for that building. In my heart of hearts I know it is out there," said Steve Nibley, who also wants to save the school from the wrecking ball.

"We just haven't found it yet."


E-mail: jeffh@desnews.com