As hundreds of adults and children toured the airy new Union Middle School in Sandy last week, the voice of a young student rose above the chatter.
“This school is too big,” she said. “I miss the old thing.”
The original Union Middle School was 55 years old and decaying, one of many aging buildings in the Canyons School District when it was founded in 2009. Canyons, a spinoff from Jordan District, estimated that it inherited $650 million in deferred maintenance buildings.
In Midvale, then-Mayor JoAnn Seghini was initially reluctant, but she was won over by the idea of Canyons, the state’s first new school district in nearly a century. And since 2010, Midvale Elementary and Midvale Middle have been rebuilt, along with other schools including Midvalley Elementary, Peruvian Park and Hillcrest High.
A facilities assessment had found that the district’s maintenance needs were so great that rebuilding many schools was cheaper than repairs.
The latest renovation, the new Union Middle has 230,000 square feet, making it 35,000 square feet – almost an acre – larger than its predecessor. The adjacent former school was demolished this summer.
While the size of the new $62 million steel building may seem overwhelming for smaller children, for most it is a welcome change.
Designed by VCBO Architecture, Union Middle now features floor-to-ceiling windows and multiple skylights. It has four year-specific academic wings, a 650-seat auditorium and each classroom is equipped to use mobile technology. The building also has 2D and 3D art rooms.
The sports area is equipped with two full courts and an elevated mezzanine running track. Separate changing rooms have been designed for all genders.
After a six-year wait, the school officially opened on September 5th. Students spent the first two weeks of the fall semester in remote learning while construction was completed.
To celebrate, Canyons School District officials hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, followed by tours and a free hot dog dinner.
A finished kitchen, several music rooms and a media center are still pending. Sports fields and a ninja warrior-style obstacle course will be completed next year.
A learning opportunity next door
Including Union Middle, Canyons has now either converted or converted 23 schools.
The former middle school, built in 1968, had suffered serious earthquake damage, making it unsafe in an earthquake. It also had outdated technology and needed heating and cooling upgrades to bring it up to date.
Construction began in 2018 and was scheduled to be completed sooner, but labor and supply shortages caused by the pandemic slowed progress. Students continued to attend classes in the old building.
And because the new school was built on the same property, students were able to watch construction in real time — something that Shawna Fillmore, a career and technical education teacher, incorporated into her lessons.
“I was able to take my students on tours of the building’s progress,” Fillmore said. “The architect shared plans with us. They shared the 3D model.”
Fillmore took advantage of these opportunities to create hands-on experiences for her students. She also asked them to document the building’s progress over the past two years and create a student-run archive.
A district that is rebuilding itself
The groundwork for the new school, Mont Millerberg, vice president of the Canyons School Board, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, “was laid 17 years ago by those who had the vision to vote to create the Canyons School District.”
In 2010, voters in the new district approved a $250 million facility upgrade bond, which was used to build two new schools and rebuild five additional buildings.
Funds to build Union Middle were part of a $283 million bond issued in 2017.
However, a year later, a state audit found that the district may have violated the law by sending out mailings urging the public to vote for the bond.
While districts are allowed to use public funds to send informational materials about bonds, they cannot be used to promote political discussions. The audit found that the majority of shippers crossed the border or were “questionable” in relation to the state’s code.
Since enrollment peaked at 34,400 students in 2018-19, Canyons District enrollment has declined by approximately 1,500 students. There are currently 32,891 students.
At Union Middle, the number of enrollments has remained stable. Preliminary enrollment numbers for this school year show 897 students, a slight increase from 862 in 2022–23. In Utah, annual enrollment numbers are not officially announced until October 1 of each year.