Neighbors rap $25M Chandler school deal - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Neighbors rap $25M Chandler school deal

August 7th, 2019 development
Neighbors rap $25M Chandler school deal

By Kevin Reagan

Staff Writer


The Chandler Unified School District has approved spending $25 million for land to build a new high school, despite a public outcry from neighbors near the site about noise and traffic congestion.   

The district is planning to build two new schools — one elementary and one secondary — in the southeastern part of Chandler in order to accommodate 3,000 extra students projected to enter the district over the next decade. The district’s current population is more than 45,000.

During a special meeting July 16, the district’s governing board unanimously authorized CUSD to purchase 73.5 acres near Gilbert and Brooks Farm roads from LaPaglia Farms. 

The district agreed to pay about $350,000 per acre—a negotiated price administrators said was justified considering its location and lack of other available parcels within district boundaries.

“In terms of approximate spacing to our existing campuses and the lack of truly viable land alternatives, we believe our negotiated price of $350,000 per acre is justifiable,” Chief Finance Officer Lana Berry said.

She added that the “highly sought-after parcel” has attracted multiple offers from developers.

Superintendent Camille Casteel said, “I never thought we’d be building another high school, but the growth continues to amaze us.”

She stressed that the district already is facing challenges keeping classes relatively small though “a lot of our high school classrooms” have a teacher-student ratio of one to 28 or even one to 30.

“We tried to hold off,” the superintendent said. “We think this is the only real viable alternative.”

School officials also conceded that while typically they need about 55 to 60 acres to build a high school, the owner didn’t want to subdivide the property and insisted the district buy 72 acres—meaning the district is possibly paying more than $4 million for land it really doesn’t need.

On a more positive note, they also noted there will be ample parking and students would not be parking on residential streets in the area.

Nevertheless, some community members felt the district was putting “the cart before the horse” by investing a large amount of funds in a project that’s still in the preliminary stages. 

“You’re paying top dollar for something that you have not planned for,” Brian Lee, a Chandler resident, told the school board. 

There were several questions asked about open enrollment, the district’s boundaries and whether a new high school is really necessary. 

The main point emphasized by administrators is that CUSD needs another high school or class sizes will increase. 

“That has not been our goal,” said Berry. “Our goal has been to keep our teacher ratios low.”

Berry told the board that CUSD is projecting to add about 300 new secondary students annually for the next six years. 

But lower birth rates are expected to shrink the district’s elementary enrollment in the near future, she added. 

This past year, the Arizona School Facilities Board appropriated funds for a new high school in Chandler that would serve up to 800 students.

 The district could be eligible for additional funds from the state board, Berry added, which would offset what the district might have to spend with bond money. 

The project’s funding won’t be contingent upon a $290-million bond issue that will go before voters in November, according to Terry Locke, the district’s spokesperson.

 A breakdown of how the bond money would be spent shows some funds have been reserved for building the new high school. 

No documents detailing the recent land deal were available to review as of Wednesday. 

Locke said CUSD had few options for finding enough land around Chandler that could fit a new high school—two sites were selected and only one owner was interested in selling, he said.

But several residents were not pleased with the site’s location, calling it downright “awful” due to the traffic and noise a new high school would generate along Gilbert Road. 

Some residents also were skeptical about the board’s decision to buy the land even though district officials have not been able to conduct any geological or other environmental studies yet.

Associate Superintendent Frank Fletcher stressed that the district won’t be closing the deal without a detailed examination for any problems.

“We make sure that there’s nothing on the site that will prohibit us from purchasing,” he said. “If any of that shows up within the 60-to-90-day due diligence period, we walk away from the contract and our earnest money is returned.”

Others demanded to know how the district would curb loitering after and before school as well as traffic issues.

Board member David Evans also told residents that Fletcher and other administrators involved in planning the new high school have “28 years experience building two schools a year.”

 “There’s a lot of planning and there are a lot of changes that happen as a result of that,” Evans said, telling one businessowner who spoke:

“The benefit that you have is you make the decisions for what you’re going to do and you get expert advice and everything else. We are told what to do by the School Facilities Board and we’re told not only what we can do, what we can buy for, we’re told when we can buy it or we’re told we have to be over capacity.”

Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, someone attempted to drum up opposition to the project by mailing out a letter expressing their disapproval of constructing a noisy high school. 

“Not only will this bring more traffic into the area,” the unsigned letter reads, “we will also experience bright lights at night (football and baseball games) and loud noises in the morning (marching band practice).”

Even though enrollment at some elementary schools is starting to level off, the district is planning to build another K-8 campus in the next couple years on 13 acres near Ocotillo Road and 148th Street. 

The new school would service students attending Weinberg Elementary and the old facility could be re-purposed into a campus for gifted students. 

Earlier this year, the school board approved spending $817,000 in engineering services for building the new elementary school, which would not be completed until at least July 2020. The new high school will likely not open until July 2021. 

No formal construction contracts have been brought before the board for consideration and a chunk of bond funds have been reserved for building the new elementary school.

District officials will be meeting with the city of Chandler in the coming weeks to begin assessing the 73-acre high school site for traffic and environmental studies.