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Top local stories of 2005: Controversy swirls as East Carbon High is closed

The final graduating class of East Carbon High lets go of balloons signaling the end of an era in Carbon County.

In a seemingly simple 3-2 vote on April 21, the Carbon School District board of education decided to close East Carbon High School.

But what led up to the closure was not simple at all, and since then there have been many new wrinkles thrown into that decision that ultimately impacted almost everyone in the county.

The vote ended a month long period of uncertainty for the residents of East Carbon, Sunnyside and Columbia, and even a few other students in the county that would attend the school next year. During that time both Helper Junior High and East Carbon High were evaluated by a committee for closure based on a number of factors including declining enrollment, test scores, course offerings and financial considerations.

On April 13 the board had voted unanimously to keep Helper Junior High open after the committee recommended that action, but put the East Carbon High recommendation on hold until the board could take a few more days to look at the situation and to also hold a meeting with citizens of the east county area which they did on April 20.

That meeting, in the East Carbon High School gym, drew a crowd to the building that few had seen in many years. It was the only time many newcomers to the area had seen the parking lot that full.

The meeting began with board president Grady McEvoy telling the audience, which reportedly numbered between 400 and 500 people at its peak, that the board was there to listen just as they had promised they would if it came down to voting on closing the school.

The beginning presentations came from those representing organizations in the community, some of which lasted 10 minutes. A few of those had handouts for the board.

Some of the statements made were concerns about how the situation would impact the students.

"We have a passion for protecting our youth in this community," said Liz Fergusen, who represented the East Carbon Community Coalition. "In this small school each person can make an impact on our community. It's a place where older students can mentor younger students. I wonder about the statement that if you take kids out of their environment they will achieve. With this change would we be putting these students more at risk?"

Students talked about their attachment to the school and how they would feel about it being closed.

"The teachers here are our friends," said Bryant Bridges. "This school is this town's backbone."

Others talked about the transition the students would face and how in some quarters people from East Carbon and Sunnyside are considered less important than those from the central part of the county.

"From the time I started school here in this area we were considered second class citizens by many in other places in the county," said Sandra Garcia. "We didn't start that perception. But how are you going to mesh kids at Carbon High, who feel that way about those from East Carbon, with kids from here?"

There were also many comments from those that feared the closing of the school would not only damage their property values but would be the death knell for the community, what it would do to the social fabric of the community and finally the dangers of transporting or having students transport themselves 25 miles to Price on Highway 6.

One woman also stiffly challenged the board to do more than listen. She asked them to tell the audience what they wanted the community to do, what they wanted to hear from those affected so that the school would not be closed.

The balloons let go almost seem to make a question mark in the sky when launched in late May. Were they asking 'What will happen next?'

Board members responded with various statements concerning the situation, largely relating to the well being and education of the students.

The meeting lasted two hours with the last few minutes being taken up largely by students who wanted to address the board about their love for the school. This included some pleas to not close it.

At the end McEvoy told those that remained that they would consider all they had heard and make a decision the next night at the board office.

The next evening the short agenda was presented to the crowd that filled the room and overflowed into the hall outside the board room. The agenda only contained one action item; whether or not to close East Carbon High. Before the vote McEvoy explained that he would not vote on the issue unless there was a tie between the other four board members. Then board member Jim Leonard made a plea to the people of East Carbon.

"I am asking the parents of the kids who go to East Carbon, and those that may go to East Carbon, to be supportive of their children no matter how this vote turns out this evening," he said. "You just need to support your kids regardless of how things go."

McEvoy then asked for a motion and board member Boyd Bell made one to accept the committees recommendation to close the school. Debbie Blackburn then seconded the motion. McEvoy called for a vote. Blackburn and Bell voted for the motion, Barry Deeter and Leonard voted against it. McEvoy then broke the tie by voting for it.

McEvoy announced the decision and then said that the district would "do everything possible to mitigate the stress."

As the vote ended sighs and groans could be heard throughout the room, then came the tears. People were hugging each other with wet eyes everywhere and the crowd began to filter out. There was no commotion or exclamations of dissatisfaction in the board room before the meeting was adjourned. As soon as it was through someone from the back called out "East Carbon parents send your kids to Green River."

While that call was made, subsequently this past fall only a few students followed it with most transitioning to Carbon High School and Mont Harmon Junior High. Reports from parents and administrators on how the closure has affected kids vary. Some say that most of the students have fit right in and are doing well. But a number of parents have come forward to say even with the best efforts of the district, the transition has been very hard for some of the young people. A larger student body has meant more choices in education, but it also has meant more competition for slots in athletics and other activities.

In the middle of the summer after doing an evaluation on the high school building, it was determined that plans to move Peterson Elementary's students directly into that building, part of the original discussion, would not work. The cost of renovating the building to meet standards for younger students was deemed to high for the old building.

"Basically what we would end up with is an old building in which we would have put a lot of money," said Carbon District superintendent, David Armstrong during the meetings on the project. "Peterson Elementary was built in 1954, while East Carbon High was built in 1959. We wouldn't gain much."

So instead of remodeling the old building the district now has plans to build a new elementary school on the grounds of the old high school at a cost of about $3 million. Most of the old high school will be torn down, while the cafeteria and gym area will be renovated and double as a free standing community center/gymnasium that will be used for the new school and the community at large.

School district officials say the new elementary school will be state of the art and be the most up to date school in the district as well as one of the best in the state.

The closure of the school, along with a vote in the Utah Legislature to allow a new landfill to open in Tooele county also appears to have had an effect on East Carbon City and Sunnyside. Many officials and residents see days of struggle for economic survival ahead with no high school in town and decreased employment at the East Carbon Development Corporation's land fill just west of the towns.

As with many stories each year this one has no definite conclusion because the ramifications of the closure are on-going across the county. The decision by the board will affect things in the county for a long time to come.

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