By James J. Hodl
Southeast Valley Ledger
Voters will be asked in November to shift three San Tan Valley schools currently in the Coolidge Unified School District (CUSD) to the Florence Unified School District (FUSD) in a move designed to maximize utilization of available student space at minimal cost to taxpayers.
The shift would encompass San Tan Heights Elementary School, Mountain Vista Middle School and San Tan Foothills High School, all in the southwest corner of San Tan Valley. It would enable FUSD to take advantage of unfilled seats at San Tan Foothills by transferring students from Poston Butte, which is at near capacity, thus saving FUSD from having to build a second high school in the part of southeastern San Tan Valley it serves.
“This is a win-win proposition for taxpayers as it saves taxpayers millions of dollars in construction costs,” said Chris Knutsen, assistant superintendent of FUSD.
“Our schools in San Tan Valley are getting overcrowded especially Poston Butte High School. We almost had 1,900 students last year. We need room to grow,” explained Dr. Amy Fuller, superintendent of FUSD.
At the same time, CUSD has seen enrollment drop by 136 students in San Tan Valley, leaving its schools at more than a bit below capacity. Charie Wallace, CUSD superintendent, blames this on more concentrated competition with charter and alternative schools in that section of Pinal County. Enrollment inside Coolidge was up 29 students, Wallace noted.
By shedding its three San Tan Valley schools, CUSD would be able to make more efficient use of tax dollars inside Coolidge while the schools would be more efficiently utilized by FUSD, she said.
In absorbing the three CUSD schools, FUSD will assume the $11 million debt still owed by CUSD in the school’s construction, thus saving CUSD money. But that amount is much less than the cost of building a new high school.
“The Schools Facilities Board has conceptually approved FUSD to build a high school in 2017. A high school in our area will cost between $40 to $60 million dollars. So our choice is, we could acquire three schools plus the commercial areas around it for $11 million or build one school and pay over four times that amount,” Fuller explained.
Voters in three areas will have to approve the consolidation. The areas are: Coolidge proper, FUSD, and the Coolidge San Tan area/portion that would consolidate into FUSD. If any of these three areas reject the proposed shift, the consolidation of all schools in southern San Tan Valley will not occur.
All FUSD and CUSD schools in San Tan Valley are south of the straight line that begins in the west parallel with Empire Boulevard and ends in the east parallel with Hash Knife Draw Road. Gary Road separates the two districts in San Tan Valley at present. The Combs Unified School District oversees schools in northern San Tan Valley and points east.
No bond issue is necessary at this point to cover the assumed $11 million debt, Fuller said.
Residents in CUSD/San Tan Valley would see some changes following voter approval. CUSD had closed the Mountain Vista Middle School as part of a recent economy drive. But current plans by FUSD is to reopen the school as a K-8 school. Middle schools are not part of FUSD’s model at present.
FUSD would retain all current teachers at San Tan Heights Elementary and San Tan Foothills High School following voter approval of the San Tan Valley shift.
FUSD would maintain the current Joint Technical Educational District vocational and technological training programs supported by Central Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology offered at San Tan Foothills High School for at least a year after the shift. After then, some or all programs might be transferred to CUSD’s Coolidge High School, where students wouldn’t have to travel 25 miles to their JTED courses, Wallace noted.
CAVIT-supported JTED courses would continue as before at FUSD’s Poston Butte High School along Gantzel Road in San Tan Valley.
The proposal to shift the three CUSD schools was praised by Wayne Bachmann, president of the San Tan Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“This is a winning proposal as it resolves both districts’ needs at minimum if any cost to the taxpayer,” Bachmann told theSoutheast Valley Ledger.“Most of all, it helps San Tan Valley by helping local educators do any even better job in educating the next generation than the good job they are already doing.”
But it appears that voters will have to be educated on what the Nov. 3 ballot initiative will do for San Tan Valley schools. In an unscientific survey taken among shoppers at the shopping area near Gary Road and Hunt Highway in late June, most voters are unaware of the proposal and on hearing what it would do worried about the cost.
Typical was Maria Omellia of the Circle Cross Ranch subdivision. She was pleased with the quality of education her son was receiving at Circle Cross Ranch Elementary School but worried that the shift might result in higher property taxes.
Carla Zapeda of the San Tan Heights subdivision wondered if schools should first try to attract and retain qualified teachers before spending on facilities.
And there may be trouble with voters that do not have children in public schools, as CUSD had in its 2014 10% override ballot initiative. Although the measure won inside Coolidge, a heavy negative vote in its San Tan Valley precincts doomed the initiative by only 32 votes.
Two parents who declined to offer their names – one sending a child to a charter school and one to an alternative school – said they would vote against the school shift, fearing it would raise their property taxes for which they’d get no benefit. This was disputed by Richard Franco, FUSD spokesman, who said a “yes” vote would likely reduce the local tax burden by $40 million simply by not having to build an additional school facility.
And a pair of parents who said they homeschool their two children said they also would vote “no” on the principle they dislike public schools in general.
Both school districts’ boards approved the shift several weeks ago and have filed with the Pinal County Superintendent of Schools Office to get the proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot.