By Philip Haldiman
Contending with the realities of rapid population growth and postponed improvements due to underfunding, like many public school systems in Arizona, Peoria Unified School District has historically used bonds and overrides to fill in the gaps. But funds from such sources have been difficult to come by lately — a bond election failed in 2016, and the governing board rejected a bond proposal last year.
However, the district will try again unfazed.
The governing board May 24 unanimously approved a $189.2 million bond proposal for the November ballot.
The proposal includes $83 million for facility modernization and site improvements, as well as $75.9 million for growth to go to the purchase of land and new construction for one high school and construction of a new facility for the Peoria Traditional School.
Initially, the Citizens’ Bond Advisory Committee recommended a proposal that did not include a high school. But based on growth, the district’s administration amended that the proposal include a high school facility.
The area north of Bell Road to the city’s northern border has seen explosive growth in the last 15 years, leading to overcrowding in some schools and the redrawing of district boundaries. As a result, northern Peoria high schools Liberty High, 9621 W. Speckled Gecko Drive, and Sunrise Mountain High, 21200 N. 83rd Ave., are at capacity, with more schools projected to follow suit.
Mike Mass, director of research and planning and assessment, said that in North Peoria there were 109 housing permits in March and 131 in April, as well as 14 rezoning/plat modifications/plat approvals in process with the city of Peoria.
Also in process are six new agreements between the district and developers that fund schools based on the number of houses built.
Mr. Mass said most of this development activity is coming from the northern part of the district. Demographic information was taken from a number of sources including Phoenix-based consulting firm Applied Economics. The district had received criticism in the past for using their own demographic statistics, so they contracted the third-party consultant.
“We were our own demographers before, but now Applied Economics does the work. Now they are the experts,” Mr. Mass said.
High school support
The bond includes $75.9 million for new schools — $48.8 million for a new high school in the north and $13 million for the land to build it on, as well as around $14 million for the construction of a new facility for the Peoria Traditional School, located at Coyote Hills Elementary School, 21180 N. 87th Ave.
Teachers and parents supported the amendment to include the new high school and cited a sense of urgency as new high schools can take two to three years to be built.
The initial proposal recommended to the governing board included funds to expand Liberty High School and land for a new high school but not funds for construction.
Parent Melissa Briggs said this would have only put a bandage on the issue of overcrowding.
Ms. Briggs has four children in Peoria Unified, two who attend Liberty High School. She said classes are being closed due to physical space keeping them from taking the classes they want and creating a year-long wait-list for student parking spots.
As the student body at Liberty gets larger and larger, the percentage of students who get to participate in extra curricular activities is getting smaller and smaller, she said.
“So already, not even three years down the road right now we are facing limitations based on what classes we can take and it will not solve these problems by adding classroom space. But adding a new high school will, and that will serve the whole district,” she said.
Technology makes up $15 million of the proposed bond, which includes replacement of student and staff devices, server and switch replacement, copy machine replacement and an analytic support system.
Heather Nieto, a teacher at Sunrise Mountain High School, whose son attends a PUSD elementary school, said more electronic devices are needed in already overcrowded classrooms. She said classroom size is an important determinate in student outcomes.
“I was looking at enrollment for my high school classes and they are pushing 40. I have no room. There are not enough books, there is not enough technology. Next year we will need to share classes with the new teachers because we don’t have room enough for our teachers who need to teach our kids,” she said. “Smaller class sizes work. Smaller classes allow for our teachers and counselors to build relationships with students so that when our students are struggling they are not a small fish in a big sea. We need to be able to help our students before we lose them or before something happens on our campus.”
PUSD has traditionally had a good track record in getting bonds on the ballot and approved by voters, until recent years.
In November of 2016, voters denied a $198 million bond by 19 percent. It was the first time a PUSD bond had failed since before 2003. It would have funded the purchase of an elementary school and a high school.
The district narrowly missed getting a bond on the 2017 ballot, as the governing board denied a proposal, 3-2, most members stating the proposal was too rushed. Two new schools were included in that proposal as well.
Rick Gutridge, who has been on the last three bond advisory committees, said he supported the contentious board vote last year but did not support the administration’s move to amend the recommendation for a new high school in this proposal.
By far, he said, this is the most deliberative, most passionate and most engaged committee he has ever sat on. But he said variance policy has allowed out-of-district students to overcrowd PUSD schools, and to expect Peoria residents to build a high school for those living out of the district is outrageous.
“To claim voters do not support education because they reject your bond proposition is to disrespect the community and your own governing board policy. Around 500 students, mostly from Deer Valley (district) take seats away from Peoria students. The numbers they use to justify a new school are based in-part on allowing Deer Valley students to take our seats,” he said. “When you are so soundly rejected at the polls, it is incumbent upon you to strike a balance that moves us forward together as a community. The deliberate overcrowding in our northern schools can be addressed by means other than the construction of a new school. We will need a school in time, but we don’t need it right this minute.”
Seven months ago, a committee of 13 began the process of providing the PUSD Governing Board with a recommendation for a bond election, starting the process of reviewing the district’s capital needs.
Governing Board President Monica Ceja Martinez said committee members were selected differently this time so all schools in the district were better represented in the bond election. She said committee members who recommended the 2017 bond proposal lived in the northern part of the city, and about half of the members were taken from a previous committee.
This committee, she said, is much more diverse than it has been in the past and is representative of the student body, with seven males and six females.
“For the first time, the committee was reflective of diverse experiences, perspectives and demographics from our community,” she said. “Through creative abrasion, agility, and resolution the committee supported initiatives from our strategic plan. They unanimously agreed to designate funds for safety resources for all our schools, money to modernize schools based on age, and include a new Peoria Traditional Elementary School.”
After the rally call of the Red For Ed movement, many educators and parents are pushing the energy to spill over into a successful turnout in support of this bond in November. But in such a divisive political environment, some supporters say it will take work.
If approved by voters, the bond would keep the bond tax rate at or below $1.60 and the average annual cost for a $100,000 home would be $63.
Annette McCarty-Abraham, president of the Peoria United Parent Council, said the new bond will not raise taxes on Peoria residents.
“My chant is going to be following Gov. Ducey’s lead when he stated we are improving education without raising taxes,” she said. “Personally, I will do everything I can to help pass this bond, reaching out to parents, community members and the business community.”
The district must submit ballot language for the bond to the Arizona Legislative Council by Aug. 13 for the Nov. 6 General Election.
Armando Macias said between now and the election he will be supporting the bond. He became a Peoria resident in 1985 and was a teacher for 11 years at Ira A. Murphy Elementary School, 7231 W. North Lane, in the southern part of the city. There have been concerns that the northern part of the district receives more financial attention than the south. Mr. Macias said a lot needs to be done, especially for the older schools, but now the district needs to unite.
Everybody needs to start thinking differently, he said.
“There is no north, there is no south. There is only one Peoria school district,” he said. “It is going to take everyone’s effort to get out your front door, put on your walking shoes and hit the streets in your neighborhood. That’s the only way it is going to pass. There are people who say it will not pass if we add the high school. I challenge everybody to prove those individuals wrong.”