Dirt work about to begin for new Bluff Elementary School, concerns over archaeology persist

by Zak Podmore
After years of preparation, construction work is set to begin at the site of the new $6.5 million Bluff Elementary School.
The San Juan School District purchased the 12.5-acre property in 2015. Located just west of town along State Route 163, the site is intended as the location of a new building to replace Bluff’s aging elementary school.
Problems with the septic system have plagued the current school building. In 2001, a new addition to the school’s leach field was rated to last only five years.
The school board has said the new school will be significantly larger to accommodate increasing enrollment numbers and will feature a full-size gymnasium, more parking, and an improved school bus drop-off.
But local parents have voiced concerns over the location of the new school site. The property abuts an ancient burial ground where the remains of 18 Ancestral Puebloans were excavated in 1980, when State Route 163 was expanded. The remains were at least 1,250 years old and were ceremonially buried with elaborate shell and turquoise jewelry.
The proximity of the excavated burial to the school property prompted the Navajo Utah Commission to request that the school district find a new building site.
“The cultural beliefs and practices of the Navajo people are strong, enduring, and meaningful in particularization to disturbance and disrespect of archaeological sites,” the Navajo Utah Commision wrote in a resolution last year.
“The Navajo people are not politicizing their beliefs and values and certainly not villainizing the San Juan School District in standing up for cultural beliefs and well-being of Navajo students.”
A heated public meeting was held in Bluff last April, with community members expressing concern over the potential of additional burial sites on the property and questioning why the current location of the school isn’t a viable building site.
In August, the school board disclosed a set of problems with the current school property, including the septic system issues, potential water pressure problems in a two story building, the cost of using temporary classrooms during construction, as well as lack of adequate space for parking and evacuation features.
San Juan School District Business Administrator Kyle Hosler told the board that the cost of importing backfill to replace the septic system was unknown, adding, “My recommendation would be that the site where the current Bluff Elementary School is would not be suitable to meet our needs or demands for a new school.”
The board also emphasized that the burial site that was discovered and excavated in 1980 are not located near the proposed building site and will not be disturbed during construction.
The property for the new school was purchased for approximately $500,000 from Eugene Shumway and Steve Simpson.
Merri Shumway, the school board vice president, disclosed conflicts of interest with the purchase and abstained from discussions and board votes regarding the property.
According to school board minutes, the property was purchased from Eugene Shumway for $50,000 per acre, and “a second parcel of 6.77 acres from the Simpsons for $25,000 for the first 5 acres and $50,000 for 1.77 acres.”
The minutes state Simpson accepted the reduced rate on part of the parcel to help the school remain in Bluff. Steve and Craig Simpson own other undeveloped lots in the Copper Cliffs Subdivision near the new school site.
The first phase of the building process will involve leveling the site, which will require crews to dig between three and ten feet deep in parts of the property.
“If there are no significant archeological finds in that process, then the contracting phase will begin,” said District Superintendent Ed Lyman.
Bill Davis of Abajo Archeology, the firm that conducted an initial survey of the school site, said a total of 26 burials, including the 18 burials that were removed in 1980, have been found within the highway right of way and just south of the highway.
The property purchased for the new school has never been excavated, but Davis said, “The probability is very high that they’ll encounter numerous burials dating from archaic to historic times.”
Davis explained that though there are a number of significant archeological sites located within Bluff, very few burials have been discovered in town. Bluff’s soil is mostly hard-packed clay, which is difficult to dig in. However, the area just west of Bluff is covered in sand dunes.
“When you get out to the dunes, that’s where the burials are,” Davis said.
The first phase of dirt work should resolve outstanding questions on the property’s archeology. Moab-based firm Montgomery Archaeological Consultants will be on site to monitor digging and will be recording any archeological finds, including any burials.
“If everything just went perfect and wonderful and we didn’t have any issues, we may have a new school by the end of next year,” said Hosler this week. “But this is a multi-million dollar project and you never know what you’re going to run into.”

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