ST. GEORGE — Amid tears and impassioned pleas from parents and students, the Washington County School District Board of Education made a difficult decision to close an elementary school in response to declining enrollment.

Washington County School District Board members (L -R) Brent Bills, Nannette Simmons, Craig Seegmiller, and David Stirland look at a presentation during the monthly meeting, St. George, Utah, Aug. 8, 2023 | Photo by Nick Yamashita, St. George News

There were also two sets of boundaries to be decided in the last meeting. The first proposed an elementary boundary change involved moving Toquerville students from Hurricane Elementary to La Verkin Elementary starting in the 2024/2025 school year.

It passed with no interruptions. Craig Seegmiller motioned, and LaRene Cox seconded.

“The Toquerville students were bussed right by La Verkin Elementary anyways,” said Brent Bills, the business administrator of the council. “It just made sense.”

That first boundary motion and subsequent passing lasted all of two minutes. The second boundary discussion raged on for over an hour.

The motion on the table would close Coral Cliffs Elementary in St. George. Families that live east of North Dixie Downs Drive would be in the Paradise Canyon boundary, while those living west of North Dixie Downs Drive would be in the Red Mountain boundary.

Coral Cliffs Elementary is on what the board repeatedly called the ‘west side.’ The west side elementary school has, for about the last six years, had declining enrollment. Currently, there are only about 60 students in total, said one board member.

“We have capacity at Arrowhead, we have capacity at Sunset, and we have capacity at Red Mountain and we have capacity at Paradise Canyon,” said Seegmiller. “Meanwhile our schools on the west side just keep shrinking.”

According to board members, they first brainstormed solutions that didn’t involve shutting down a campus. Proposed ideas included that they “adjust boundaries for all schools in the area to balance enrollment, or move all Post High school students to core class, or move only some of the Post High students at Coral Cliffs,” said Bills.

In the end, they zeroed in on only one solution — to close Coral Cliffs.

File photo of Washington County School District office, St. George, Utah, July 25, 2019 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

Every school year there is a budget. According to this year’s allocations, keeping Coral Cliffs open next year would cost about $3000 more per student than any of the east side schools. This discrepancy is hard to fathom for about 60 students, administrators said in the discussion.

The agenda item was read as a hush fell over the crowd.

A mic on a podium waited at the room’s center for anyone who approached the podium. The public was given three minutes to say their piece before music would play, Oscars style, cutting them off and signaling their time was up.

“We’ll go ahead and open the hearing,” said president Becky Dunn.

This was met with murmuring from teachers, students and parents in attendance at this packed meeting.

Every parent or child who spoke offered only ethos. The board cited budgets, figures and hard facts. A teary-eyed mother, Ms. Greenhurst, approached the stand.

“I know this is our last chance,” she said. “I want each one of you to know that parents need children who show that they love their school. It’s not right. Numbers? I don’t care.”

Her comments were met with applause from audience members. Then Coral Cliffs Father John Sims took to the podium.

“I tucked my boy into bed last night. When he’s in tears, he doesn’t know about his friends. What tomorrow is going to hold,” he said. “That’s frightening for an eight-year-old. As his dad, all I can do is hug him and hope that it gets better.”

He walked back to his seat serenaded by a round of applause. Another parent emphasized her disregard for the available empirical data.

“If you pass this, everyone’s faith in the public education system will be gone, because you put money and numbers ahead of our children,” said Tiffany Banali to more applause.

Banali’s son Kyle gave a speech as well. In it he used the zodiac signs as a metaphor to highlight his hurt over his school potentially closing, tying it all together in saying that no matter what your star sign is, you’d be sad about this.

“Our teacher has taught us about zodiac animals during the Chinese New Year,” said Kyle Banali. “Most of the class was born in 2014. I myself was born in 2015; the year of the sheep. One trait that stood out to me was tender-hearted. But it doesn’t matter if your zodiac is the sheep, the dragon, whatever. If your zodiac animal is the sheep, you wouldn’t have to be tender-hearted to feel emotional balance.”

The Washington County School District administrative building, St. George, Utah, March 5, 2016 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Kyle Banali, yet to turn 10-years-old, received the loudest applause of them all.

Though others tried, Banali speech proved to be too hard of an act to follow, evidenced by two women in attendance whose jaws dropped.

When the public had been heard and microphone powered down, the dull hum emitted from the speakers until finally evaporating. The room was still, save for those who continued their meeting-long crying.

Next, Dunn closed the public hearing and opened up discussion for the board members. They responded one by one, each justifying their votes.

“It’s not about the numbers, but we do have to look at the numbers, we have to look at declining enrollment,” said Seegmiller. “It’s awful. It’s terrible. It’s painful. But it might be necessary.”

Utah Tech University student Kennady McCaul voices her support of keeping Coral Cliffs Elementary open at the school district board meeting, St. George, Utah, Nov. 14, 2023 | Photo by Nick Yamashita, St. George News

David Stirland tried to ease the parents into the eventual passing of the heartfelt motion.

“I believe every elementary school in the Washington School District is doing their very best to give students the best opportunities to succeed,” Stirland said. “They’re all going to do their best. Believe that your children are going to succeed because the new schools are going to give them the best opportunity for success.”

Nannette Simmons added, “If we were to vote with our hearts, you know which way we would vote. There’s a lot of things that we have been looking at. We’re trying to wrap our brains around it and ask ‘what can we do?’”

Burke Staheli teased that he was voting in favor of passing the motion but made sure to note that the parents and students attending to speak meant a lot to him.

“I would not expect anything different from you as a parent,” Staheli said. “I would not expect anything different from you as a teacher or a principal. I thought to myself I would be in the exact same place you are if I was out there.”

LaRene Cox spoke of her first-hand experience in dealing with a boundary change and explained how she navigating a new school with her children. She segued into teasing her vote.

“I’ve been in your situation. My children were the ones that got changed,” she said. “What I learned from it is that each time they got changed, got a new principal, a new teacher, that somebody else looked after them. They will love them just dearly as the last person did.”

Washington County School Board Member David Stirland smiles at the accomplishments of several students backpacks at the school board meeting, St. George, Utah, Sept. 12, 2023 | Photo by Nick Yamashita, St. George News

One board member was not so abstract.

“I think they saved me for last because I’m not running for council again,” said Terry Hutchinson. “I will tell you that this decision has been the most painful. But it really hasn’t been the hardest.”

His response was all about the numbers.

“Look at the balance,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to transfer more than the 14,000 students we move every day. If we did, it would probably cost 20 to 25 thousand dollars. But we don’t have the money to do that.”

Dunn spoke highly of attendees who came to plead their case.

“I have to think about what’s best for all students, and what is fair and equal for them,” Dunn said, wiping her eyes. “I will ultimately be voting in favor of the proposal that the district has presented. I just want to express my gratitude to you guys for coming and sharing your stories with us.”

In a clean sweep, all board members voted in favor of closing the school, with none opposed. The still teary-eyed parents poured out of the room en masse.

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