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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Construction continues on the performing arts center at Alta High School in Sandy on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Canyons School District made history on July 1, 2009, which marked the start of Utah's first new school district in nearly 100 years.

SANDY — Canyons School District's first home was shared office space in a homebuilder's office building.

But when newly hired Superintendent Dave Doty showed up his first day, he was told the offices and conference room weren't ready and he was asked if he could come back the next day.

Doty drove home and pulled out his laptop.

"No joke. I started my first day at the kitchen table," he said.

" I started my first day at the kitchen table. "
Dave Doty, inaugural superintendent of Canyons School District

Doty, the first superintendent of Canyons School District, didn't have a minute to spare. He was on a tight deadline to assemble an administrative team and prepare for the start of the school year within a matter of months.

"We just had to make the trains run on time," Doty said.

Doty, who agreed to lead the nascent school district after serving as an associate commissioner for the Utah System of Higher Education, had grander plans for the school district — such as improving students' college and career readiness, enhancing the district's use of technology and other innovations.

But Job 1 the summer of 2009 was getting the school district off to a good start.

"We couldn't afford to fail," said Susan Edwards, the school district's public engagement coordinator and Doty's first hire.

It wasn't as if the school district had been born in a cradle of love. The east-side school district was formed by splitting the Jordan School District and the legislation that created the mechanism for the division didn't allow anyone outside of the proposed new district boundaries a vote in the matter.

Even among voters in the boundaries, which included the communities of Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Midvale, Sandy, Alta and unincorporated Salt Lake County, 53 percent supported establishing a new district while 47 percent voted against it in 2007.

At the time, Tracy Cowdell, a Jordan School Board member who later became the first president of the Canyons Board of Education, campaigned against the ballot question.

"I thought it was a bad idea," he said, explaining that he later became one of Canyons District's staunchest advocates.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Alta High School in Sandy is pictured on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Canyons School District made history on July 1, 2009, which marked the start of Utah's first new school district in nearly 100 years.

Cowdell was hardly alone in his skepticism. Early on, the district and the school board were under intense scrutiny from the remaining Jordan School District, the communities Canyon District serves, the Utah Legislature and the larger education community.

With that backdrop, Doty and a small administrative team worked toward a successful opening of the academic year in the fall of 2009.

Across the valley, Jordan School District Superintendent Barry Newbold was dealing with his own challenges related to the split, which included personnel issues and an arbitrator dividing assets and debt between the districts.

Canyons officials are quick to credit Newbold for his cooperation and professionalism during the transition and beyond.

As Newbold explained in a 2011 Deseret News article when he retired from the Jordan School District, his primary goal was "from a student perspective, (that the split) be a nonevent when it finally happened."

Edwards said that was Canyons' objective, too.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Construction continues at Alta High School in Sandy on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Canyons School District made history on July 1, 2009, which marked the start of Utah's first new school district in nearly 100 years.

"We managed to pull everything off and opened with success," she said.

The start was marked by a school bus parade through the five communities served by Canyons School District.

Edwards said some Canyons officials broached the idea of staging another parade for the district's 10th anniversary, which was July 1, but she quickly dispatched the idea because the first one had been such a logistical headache.

Instead, the school district celebrated its 10th anniversary on Monday with a community event at Sandy Amphitheater Splash Park.

“This district simply wouldn’t exist without the community’s support,” said Canyons Superintendent Jim Briscoe in a statement.

“This is but a small token of thanks for all the people who make Canyons such a wonderful place to live, learn and work.”

The event was so successful the district's communications director, Jeff Haney, said he feared the hot dogs would run out before the end of the day's celebration.

Standing near a long line of parents and children anxiously waiting to fill their plates, he said "I ordered 500 hot dogs. I was hoping that I wouldn't have to go home with any tonight. But I think that we're going to be lucky if we can meet all of the demand for a free hot dog today."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Coral Mangum and Silvia Rodriguez, both with the Canyons School District's nutrition services, cook hot dogs during the district's 10th anniversary celebration at the Sandy Amphitheater Splash Park on Monday, July 1, 2019.

Kathryn Myers, PTA president of Corner Canyon High School, was at Monday's event. She said she's been volunteering at her children's school's since before the district's split after discovering her son, in seventh grade at the time, was being bullied at school.

"I needed my son to feel like he was in control and in charge and the principal was so awesome and kind and helped him through that" she said, noting that she decided to volunteers so that "all children could have that opportunity."

Myers said watching the district's evolution has been "wonderful" and noted that the "partnership that parents have with the school district just doesn't happen in other places."

A decade of operation is a significant milestone and it's important to reflect on the effort behind the district's launch and the work that followed to set in motion an academic program that seeks to prepare every graduate for the workforce or college, healing a fractured community and addressing hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance of aging schools, Edwards said.

The running joke among board members, administrators and some employees involved in the launch of the district is the first couple of years was such a heavy lift that people aged in "dog years."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Kids play at the splash pad during the Canyons School District's 10th anniversary celebration at the Sandy Amphitheater Splash Park on Monday, July 1, 2019.

At the time, one of the greatest challenges was "to manage expectations," Cowdell said.

Municipal leaders were heavily involved in the campaign to create the new school district. Many of the voters who supported the change did so in the name of self-governance.

Residents believed the change would result in smaller class sizes, higher pay for teachers, more local control and resources to rebuild and renovate schools to better serve safety, education and technology needs.

One of the first tests of the new administration and school board was asking voters to approve a $250 million bond in 2010.

The bond passed by "the narrowest of margins," while the nation was pulling out of the Great Recession. Still, the bond's passage indicated that the district's work to earn the trust of patrons was paying dividends, Edwards said.

Doty, who has also worked as an educator and attorney specializing in education law, is deeply committed to equity for all kids, he said.

"I felt very strongly that the first school rebuilt was in the poorest part of the district," he said. The school was Midvale Elementary School.

In 2017, Canyons voters approved a $283 million bond to address 11 major construction projects, including the rebuilds of Hillcrest and Brighton high schools and a major renovation of Alta High.

Some of the other highlights in the past decade, according to Canyons officials, include:

  • The district's graduation rate has reached a record high of 89 percent;
  • Thirteen schools have been built, rebuilt or renovated with plans for major upgrades to eight more while maintaining the district's AAA bond rating;
  • Employee pay has increased every year of the district’s existence; and
  • The Canyons Education Foundation has awarded educators more than $700,000 in Innovation Grants.

Doty said he's "really happy we were able to prove the naysayers wrong. It was possible, within the budget and tax structure we inherited, to do this without major disruption to educational services for kids in the Canyons District."

Cowdell said it took someone with "courage, vision and passion for excellent public education" to lead the new school district and chart a new course academically.

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"We needed someone doing what’s right for students and doing what's right by the employees."

Doty fit the bill, he said.

"I was very proud of our entire team effort to make that happen. I will never take personal credit for that. It's a complex operation," said Doty, who resigned from the school district in 2013.

"People who go into public education, whether they're a custodian or a teacher, they're not in it for the money. They do it because they have a passion for it. They do it because they love kids."

Contributing: Christina Giardinelli