Michelle Kaufusi says the vote to move Provo High School was a dagger to her heart.
As the current mayor of Provo, the former president of the Provo City School District Board of Education and an alumni of the district’s oldest high school, her ties to the school run deep.
“A lot of people look back on high school and say, ‘I won’t go back, it was the worst days of my life,’ but not here,” Kaufusi said. “We love each other and loved our experience and people literally want a piece of it before it goes down.”
The school’s not going down, at least not immediately. After voters agreed to fund the rebuild of the school with a bond in 2014, the school board unanimously voted to move the school from University Avenue to Provo’s west side and put the current school up for sale in 2015.
Brigham Young University bought the school and the 25 acres it sits on for $25 million in 2016 and agreed to rent back the facilities and grounds to the district for 30 months at no cost while the new school is being constructed.
Two years later, BYU, which is across the street from the University Avenue high school site, has not publicly disclosed what it plans to do with the property.
Students will begin attending the new school in the fall.
But even though the school is physically moving, the community’s passion isn’t going anywhere.
“There is just a feel that is special here,” said Boyd McAffee, the principal of Provo High School.
The target day to have the building vacated is May 25.
And when classes begin again on Aug. 15, the term “Provo High School” will belong to a new building.
The district originally planned to rebuild Provo High School at its current address on University Avenue. Students would have been moved to different parts of the school and to portable classrooms while the new school was being constructed.
Scrapping that plan was painful for Kaufusi, who was president of the Provo City School District Board of Education at the time. Every word about how the current location wasn’t the best place to rebuild the school made her angrier.
“I had a love for it and it skewed my perception of the realities because for me it was so emotional and so sentimental,” Kaufusi said.
Provo High School has had more than 10 additions done since the 1950s and needed pricey seismic upgrades. A 2012 evaluation showed the school would need $18.3 million in maintenance over 10 years.
The eventual vote to move the school was unanimous.
About half of the money from the $108 million bond passed in 2014 to rebuild five schools is going toward the Provo High School project, which was budgeted at $79.7 million.
The vote wasn’t just rough on Kaufusi, but also on community members who had walked the halls of Provo High School and who saw it as the center and gateway to the city. Following the vote, Kaufusi said she was approached by alumni who wanted a brick from the building, wanted the district to auction off lockers or requested to see a favorite spot in the school one final time before the school closed.
But knowing the school had moved once before, Kaufusi said, helped her.
The school is shifting to the west similarly to how Provo’s population is projected to. While the school may not longer be adjacent to Bulldog Blvd., it’s still expected to be deeply connected to the community.
“Schools inevitably become the center of a community regardless of a physical location,” said Todd McKee, the executive director of secondary education for Provo City School District.
He also expects the new building to boost school morale.
“There is a little bit more of a spring in your step and a smile on your face,” McKee said.
Faculty gave input throughout the design process.
McAffee said some parts of the University Avenue building, like the D Wing, have had problems since they were built.
“We have shifting foundations and we have cracks in the walls where kids can pass notes back and forth between classes,” McAffee said.
There are issues with the school’s heating, air and plumbing. Kids wear coats to class. There are doors that don’t close. The issues have piled up in the maze-like building over the years.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t deep nostalgia linked to the structure.
“People are mourning the loss of this building,” McAffee said.
This school year will require emotionally preparing the school community to move into a new building. It will also require the monumental physical move.
Typically, when an old school is being rebuilt, the current school is demolished and things that won’t be moved stay inside it when the building goes down. Since the building is being handed over to BYU, the district will have to have to empty and clean out 70 years worth of stuff.
“It will be a colossal undertaking to vacate this building,” McAffee said.
Teachers will need to be packed and ready to move out on the last day of school. A moving company will then come to deliver their items to their new classrooms.
Summer school and camps will be in the building through July and the offices will remain in the current building during the summer.
McAffee has spent time in various positions at schools across Provo City School District, but he’s always ended back at Provo High School. He was an assistant principal there for five years before being named the interim principal last year and was recently appointed as the principal.
His family has a long history with the school. His grandfather attended Provo High School, as did his aunt. His oldest child is a fourth-generation Provo High School student.
Kaufusi was a cheerleader at Provo High School and served in other roles, as well, which included being Miss Hi for a welcome week. Her mother attended Provo High School, and Kaufusi’s siblings did, too.
“I had a great high school experience, I really did,” Kaufusi said. “I had a lot of fun.”
She considers herself lucky to have grown up in the area when students lived near their teachers and ran into them in the grocery store. She even remembers her favorite teacher, who taught English and taught her to love reading and journaling, and a bulldog in a little green sweater running out onto the field during games.
She still has her Provo High School shirts, and said her children, who’ve attended Timpview High School, refuse to eat with her when she’s wearing them.
Provo High School was originally established in 1912 and began graduating students about a decade later. It started on Center Street in Provo before moving to its current location on University Avenue in the 1950s.
It’s seen its fair share of notable alumni, and there are also plenty of rumors about who has gone there.
“We have a handful of important folks who did, but yeah, the entire Quorum of the Twelve did not go here,” McAffee said.
Neither did Donny Osmond or Dallin H. Oaks, the first counselor in the First Presidency in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But Kaufusi, Provo’s first female mayor and Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland, did. So have Paul Boyer, a chemist and 1997 Nobel Laureate an authors Mark Z. Danielewski and Tracy Hickman, among others.
Planning a legacy
McAffee plans to mount his grandfather’s Provo High School letterman jacket in a shadow box to be displayed in his office.
It won’t be the only piece of Provo High School memorabilia that will be on display at the new building.
The P in the middle of the gym floor will be cut out and placed in the new building. Some senior class gifts, like the bronze bulldog, will also be moved to the new school.
Jerseys in shadow boxes and old yearbook photos are being touched up, printed and displayed. A commemorative flag will be designed by a student and flown this year and the next school year before being put on permanent display at the new school.
There are community, student and faculty committees organizing various activities surrounding the transition, which will include an all class reunion in May, digitizing yearbooks and organizing an alumni choir that will perform a commemorative event.
Lori Otterstrom, a member of the community legacy committee, has attended a tour of the new high school with the committee. She said the committee went through the school and helped come up with idea of where different displays could be placed.
“The value of this committee is trying to help make some continuity, make some connections and some excitement for a new space,” Otterstrom said.
McAffee said this year’s seniors have been passionate about their final year at the school. The school has brought back the senior all-night party based on popular demand, had a dance on the football field and had a homecoming event that included about 300 alumni.
He said the school is excited to have a new building and thankful to the community for voting on a bond to fund it.
“The community deserves something great,” McAffee said. “Kids deserve something great, something that shows the community believes in them, and this has been a symbol of that.”