This month commemorates the 20th birthday of the Peoria Independent.
Such landmark dates tend to spark introspection and reflection, thoughts of where we have been and where we are going.
Peoria certainly looks quite different than it did 20 years ago. Growth is leaving its stamp on the city with development dominating the northern part of town and population increases marching higher.
Peoria Unified School District is now the fourth largest public school district in the state. And the city is gaining a reputation as a place worth laying down roots— last September, “Money Magazine” placed Peoria higher than any other Arizona city on their list of best places to live at No. 29.
Such forward motion produces visions of important advancements, and certainly, the city has experienced many.
But the first issue of the Peoria Independent published 20 years ago this week, might paint a different picture.
Three of the five front page stories were about issues the city continues to deal with today, indicating progress might not be as real as one would hope.
That said, the front page from two decades ago is merely a snapshot of one week in time in the city of Peoria, and doesn’t draw any scientific conclusions. But it sure is interesting to consider.
So come with us now on a journey into the past when Peoria was a quiet bedroom community to today as it pushes itself toward a more fully realized city.
Sadly, teacher recruitment and retention was an issue 20 years ago and it remains so today. Red For Ed dominated the headlines last year and the lead headline on Peoria Independent’s inaugural edition is
not far off from describing today’s public education woes, “PUSD quests for teacher hiring answers,” by former journalist Mark Pollock.
In the article, former PUSD Superintendent Paul Koehler states, “The issue of hiring, certifying, retaining and compensating teachers is no small matter. It’s an issue that is being faced by every district of any size, not only in Arizona but across the country.”
At the time, Arizona did not recognize experience a teacher may have had in another state, making the recruitment of talented teachers in other states difficult.
In an article I wrote in 2016, then Superintendent Darwin Stiffler similarly lamented recruiting teachers from out-of-state because, he said, districts only have a limited amount to pay teachers because funding is alloted by the Arizona Legislature, which remains a contentious factor today.
In July 2016, PUSD’s teacher retention was at about 88 percent.
“It’s amazing what some people think of Arizona. They have perhaps some correct perceptions, but they also believe that Arizona is dangerous, that it is redneck. All of those sorts of things I have heard recruiters say,” he said. “Teachers ask, ‘When is the district going to pay me what I really deserve.’ The answer is that the district wants to do that. The real question is: When is the state going to make it possible to pay you what you deserve? When somebody learns about that bit, it changes the conversation and shows where we need to advocate. We can’t distribute what we don’t have.”
More recently, an article I wrote in May 2018, explains the retention of school psychologists is still an issue, “No guidance counselor left behind.”
On May 2, 2018, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a budget that included funds for about a 20 percent raise for teachers over three years, essentially ending a school walk-out that resulted in district-wide school closures over six days. But that did not include funds for guidance counselors, some of whom say they take on just as much of a burden to meet children’s needs as certified teachers.
In the article, PUSD guidance counselor Candace Scholtz said when Mr. Ducey proposed the 20 percent raise, she was both ecstatic and disillusioned.
Ms. Scholtz has spent her entire 29-year career in the district as a teacher and counselor. When she started, she said, everybody — from teachers to bus drivers to administrators — felt valued and part of an integral piece of the school puzzle with equal importance placed on everybody. She voiced her concern about a budget proposal that did not include raises for counselors like it did for teachers.
“(Mr. Ducey’s proposal) was quite concerning for the rest of us who work so hard every day to feel as if we matter to kids as well. However, I understood that the legislature and the governor are far removed from the reality of an actual school and what happens there daily. Therefore, the slight of being ineligible for this raise inspired me to battle, but I was not hurt personally,” she said.
Last year, PUSD provided salary raises to all employee groups, including psychologists, at 5%.
The most recent numbers suggest the district retains 87% of their teaching staff. During the 2018-19 school year, the district lost 11% of the teaching staff.
Officials said a need today is for support staff, such as bus drivers, instructional assistants, food service and district maintenance.
Superintendent Linda Palles Thompson stated in an email that compensation for all PUSD staff continues to be a top priority for the district.
“We are looking forward to the second part of our compensation study to build upon the work that began last year and hopefully will provide us with some guiding data to shape future decisions,” she said.
The first issue of the Peoria Independent and more recent issues have served as bookmarks, of sorts, for the Challenger Space Center, or as it was known 20 years ago, the Challenger Learning Center.
As the ink was drying on the first issue of the Peoria Independent, fund raising efforts were nearing its goal of $4.5 million to be able to finish construction on the state-of-the-art facility, planned to open spring 2000, adjacent to Sunrise Mountain High School, 21200 N. 83rd Ave.
A story about the center’s progress served as the page one centerpiece featuring a dominant photo of Craig Weeks, a future teacher at the space-based facility, on the property under construction.
The facility was dedicated to the crew of the Challenger Space Shuttle that exploded shortly after it left the ground Jan. 28, 1986. It served as an educational complex promoting “experimental and collaborative learning,” as well as a museum.
But the Challenger’s residence in Peoria came to an end Sept. 30 2017, when the organization was forced to leave the building due to a land sale between the district and Kevin Knight, chairman of Knight Transportation Group.
The district, which had previously owned the land, took over ownership of the nearly100,000-square-foot facility, received a cash settlement and a charitable donation in exchange for two parcels of land that went to Mr. Knight.
The district spent more than a year researching the highest and best use for the space, including an investigation of skyrocketing costs to convert the building to an educational space.
On May 30, 2019, the governing board approved a $1.6 million plan to re-purpose the building as an arts facility housing arts classes from Sunrise Mountain High School to make room for more classes on the main campus. The arts classes on campus will be built as standard classrooms to alleviate overcrowding in the school, which is at capacity.
The building will be known as the Sunrise Mountain Arts Center, projected to open August 2020.
PUSD spokeswoman Danielle Airey said the district is waiting for approval on some permits and has received two rounds of review from the city, which is near completion.
General contractor Sun Valley Builders is working on securing subcontractors, ordering materials and submitting product information.
The facility is on track to open on time, Ms. Airey said.
“We are still expected to be complete by August of 2020 and looking forward to welcoming students and the community into this facility,” she said.
Impact fees are those that are intended to pay for future growth and have long been an important tool for municipalities to ensure infrastructure is funded for the future.
They have had different effects on how a city plans for its future in the last 20 years, and their significance has changed since then.
In former editor Patrick O’Grady’s cover story for the inaugural issue, “New Impact fees causing consternation,” the fees pitted the city against developers, who claimed the council was considering fees that would increase 200-300%, which would raise the cost of home building and effect the homebuyer’s pocketbook.
On the other hand, raising the cost would allow the city to control growth
with many homes coming in and no places of business to provide jobs to residents, a theme that still exists today, as many Peoria residents still drive out of the city to their places of work.
In the 1999 article, former Peoria Mayor John Keegan said 77% of people who lived in Peoria worked someplace else.
Today the jobs to worker ratio in the West Valley is about 7:10, according to a report from Westmarc and Maricopa Association of Governments.
Today impact fees don’t allow the bargaining power for controlling growth thatitusedtoduetoalaw passed in 2011 that forced cities to stop collecting certain fees.
For example, only 30 acres of city parks can be applicable to impact fees. A major project like the much anticipated 80-acre Paloma Community Park, expected to open late spring 2020, would not have paid for itself like would have 20 years ago.
In a recent Peoria Independent article, Peoria Mayor Cathy Carlat said growth does not pay for itself in Arizona like it used to.
But for the greater good, Peoria is committed to keep up the level of quality it always has before, she said.
“I think it is very important for our citizens to know we are not going to decrease the level of quality for parks or libraries or infrastructure in any way based on what our state legislature has done with impact fees,” Ms. Carlat said.
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, phaldiman@ newszap.com, or on Twitter @ philiphaldiman.