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How does Utah welcome its first new school district in 100 years?

With a massive birthday cake, miniature golf, time capsule and five-city bus parade led by school board members on Harley Davidson's, among other things.

Call it unconventional. But staff and patrons of the new Canyons School District say Wednesday's day-long celebration, which cost less than $2,500, symbolized a more locally responsive, transparent and innovative approach to public education.

"We promise to be close to patrons, make employees feel valued and be student-centered. That's what this board is all about," said Canyons Board of Education member Sherril Taylor, clad in a motorcycle helmet and leathers.

July 1 marked the official start of Utah's fifth-largest district, spanning the communities of Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Midvale and Sandy. Canyons Superintendent David Doty is now officially responsible for thousands of employees, 33,000 students and 44 schools.

At midnight, transportation workers changed signs on buses. And state and federal funds were transferred, though Canyons teachers will continue to get paychecks from the old Jordan District until the start of the 2009-10 school year.

Much has happened since 2007, when east-side communities voted to break from Utah's largest school district to form their own. Doty has built his administrative team, taking some heat for high salaries, and weathered a bitter legal battle over Jordan's assets.

City leaders spoke of a desire to forgive and forget.

"This is not a divorce. It's not a separation. It's a birth," said Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini, headlining a sign-changing ceremony at Hillcrest High School.

Urging support from teachers, custodians, parents and school children, Seghini said "it takes a village to raise a child ... I promise we will do everything we can to raise this child and make it the best school district in the state."

But the real test comes next fall when most schools re-open.

Superintendent Doty faces high expectations from parents who want smaller classrooms, more arts, music and extracurricular activities, and modernized school buildings.

Meanwhile, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is still weighing a legal challenge to the Jordan split from the city of Herriman, which argues it was illegally barred from voting.

Doty, an education lawyer, doesn't think Herriman has much of a chance of prevailing on appeal. And even if it did, Doty doubts the court would order the split reversed.

A bigger challenge, he says, will be pitching a massive bond to upgrade schools at a time when many families are feeling pinched.

Doty is calling for more academic rigor and wants all Canyons students graduating prepared for college and the work force.

It won't be easy considering that Canyons, despite its rich property tax base, suffers the same funding shortage as all Utah school districts. Generations of academics since Horace Mann, the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education and father of the "common school" movement, have fought to reconcile rigor with educational equity.

Recognizing this, Doty published a blog posting Wednesday, drawing parallels with Mann and the challenges he faced 172 years ago.

But at least one parent at Wednesday's festivities voiced support.

"I'd be happy to pay higher taxes if it means air-conditioned schools, smaller class sizes and better textbooks," said Anne Thomsen, a Sandy mom of four.

Thomsen said she doesn't understand why under Jordan some schools had drama programs and others didn't, or why schools in Cottonwood Heights were being shuttered when cramped west side schools were littered with portables.

"I'm more hopeful now, more hopeful that this district will be responsive," said Thomsen.

District snapshot

Canyons School District is Utah's fifth largest, spanning the communities of Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Midvale and Sandy.

33,000 students

44 schools (29 elementary, 8 middle, 4 high schools)

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