Peoria Unified feels the effects
By Philip Haldiman
When Melissa Girmscheid moved to north Peoria nearly 10 years ago, there wasn’t much to see in her neighborhood near Lake Pleasant Parkway and Pinnacle Peak Road.
She says the only buildings on that square-mile were her two streets and Liberty High School, 9621 W. Speckled Gecko Drive. There were plans for an elementary school to be built at 95th Avenue and Williams Road.
Since 2011, homes have encroach around her and the elementary school has yet to be built — a microcosm of the city from its center to the northern reaches.
Being a physics teacher at Centennial High School, she has also seen Peoria Unified schools grow closer to capacity.
“I’ve watched the area explode in the past eight years,” she said.
From 2013 to 2018, Peoria approved 7,735 single-family home permits, most of them in the central to northern part of town where Ms. Girmscheid lives.
During a period of rapid growth, they increased from 845 in 2013 to 1,562 in 2016, an 85 percent increase. Now families are starting to move in. Consequently, Liberty High School and two elementary schools in the northern part of town have reached capacity.
And, with the failure of two bonds since 2016, the district does not readily have funds for new schools, which will likely lead to tighter quarters on school campuses, Ms. Girmscheid speculates.
“Saying that the rapid growth in the north is creating overcrowding does not give the full picture. Parents have used examples of class sizes of 35-plus students, crowded hallways and cafeterias, and teachers sharing classrooms as evidence of a problem,” she said.
“But these issues are not isolated to the north, however. This crowding is taking place at northern, central and southern schools. Across the district we are experiencing enrollment growth and have introduced measures such as traveling teachers and ‘temporary’ classrooms to mitigate this problem.”
The Peoria Today newspaper requested building permits issued by the city of Peoria over the last five years to understand how growth is impacting the area. Records pursued and received were:
- A six-year snapshot of single-family building permits issued.
- A six-year snapshot of multifamily building permits issued.
- A six-year snapshot of commercial building permits issued.
The economics of growth
Benjamin J Katz, a Realtor with Lake Pleasant Real Estate, said the simple reason for such explosive growth has been a good economy.
A lot of people moved to Phoenix, unemployment has been extremely low, interest rates were at record lows from 2015 to 2017, he said.
“Millennials really started buying their first home, and builders took advantage of it,” Mr. Katz said.
Metro Phoenix has been growing at about 2 percent per year, which results in about 95,000 to 100,000 persons.
Mark Stapp, director of the Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice, said that equates to demand of about 27,000 to 30,000 new housing units, which is driven by cost of living and employment growth. Metro Phoenix was fourth in population and numeric growth in 2018 and will continue to be a growth community and garner a significant share of metro Phoenix growth, he said.
“I think Peoria has evolved along with metro Phoenix but lagged slightly in recovery,” he pointed out.
“Now Peoria has been one of the fastest-growing areas of the metro area. The Northwest Valley had about 13 percent market share of new home permits last year. That market share is likely to stay about the same this year.”
But Mr. Stapp also explains rapid growth usually out-paces the ability of a city to provide services.
“The critical issues are social support and creation of social and cultural services and systems. Schools are one, but so are other support services,” he said “Creating a highly desirable, healthy and resilient community is more than curb, gutter, sewer and sidewalks. It is community, and that is formal and informal support systems.”
From Bell Road north, the city projects nearly 6,000 new single-family home units in the next five years — 2,935 in the central corridor and 3,034 in the northwest sector, spanning the Mesquite and Willow council districts.
City officials estimate this will represent 93 percent of projected growth over that period; once built, the new houses could add up to 8,000 residents in the central corridor and 8,200 in the north, according to city documents.
The Mesquite District, which spans from Happy Valley Road to Lake Pleasant, is Peoria’s northern most council district and is poised to see a good portion of the city’s growth in the coming years. It includes the 7,100-acre master planned community of Vistancia.
Council member Bridget Binsbacher, who represents the Mesquite District, said the area is unique because the abundance of development opportunities provides a canvas of exciting possibilities for the future.
Rather than forcing plans into existing frameworks, the chance to create the foundation itself is present in the district, she said.
“Peoria also has a strong foundation on which to build from; sound fiscal policies and smart growth principles in place make the Mesquite District that much more attractive to developers,” she said.
But Ms. Binsbacher said the municipality must continue to work alongside landowners and the school district to meet the needs of the residents.
She said it is important to remember that funding for schools comes from state and federal dollars, and that cities have no jurisdiction in school funding.
Arizona cities are not authorized to govern or manage schools in any way, but the state directly through the school districts has the constitutionally delegated responsibility for the funding, facilities, and operations of schools, Ms. Binsbacher said.
“In fact, the Arizona Constitution makes it clear that schools and cities are entirely separate entities with their own boundaries, governing boards, and revenue sources,” she said. “Although we work together on a variety of daily needs, we are mindful of our limitations as collaborating entities and separate governing bodies.”
There are no laws that require developers to fund school districts to accommodate for growth.
The district receives $400 per apartment unit and $1000 per single-family home through voluntary developer assistance.
Ms. Girmscheid said this means it takes 88 apartment units or 35 single-family homes to fund just one brand-new, inexperienced teacher, not counting the expense of benefits and training, and neglecting the cost of materials, furniture and other things to prepare to educate those students.
This developer assistance amount has not been raised in more than a decade while the cost of educating each student has risen due to inflation, she said.
“The city of Peoria does need to share in some responsibility for the overcrowding,” she said “The strong reputation of our public school district has been used as a selling point for homes for the 33 years I have lived in the West Valley. We have been the reason many families moved to Peoria.”
The impact on public education
PUSD president Monica Ceja Martinez said the growth has caused challenges for the district, which serves 37,000 students in the West Valley. It is the fourth largest district in the state.
But she said the district will not neglect the needs of its families, regardless of their school, neighborhood or city boundaries.
She said support is needed from everybody, including municipalities, which have been consistently inconsistent.
“Growth is happening in every city with schools in Peoria Unified. We are grateful for the support of our community because we surely need it … we have champions, allies and fence-sitters in each municipal government at any given time,” she said.
“As a district, we cannot make decisions that will affect our students and our families based on map lines.”
Ms. Girmscheid also believes support is needed community-wide, especially now that a bond advisory committee has been reinstated and has begun planning for a new ballot measure. This time around the committee will also be considering the possibility of an override.
She said until the Arizona State Legislature determines a method for funding both the capital and maintenance and operations needs of public schools, bonds and overrides will be the manner in which communities can invest in their own futures.
To have a successful ballot measure in 2019, supporters will need to educate voters about how school funding works and win over a senior community that usually does not support such measures.
The community must come together to get each neighborhood school the funding needed for vital projects while ensuring equitable facilities across the district, Ms. Girmscheid said.
“We cannot wait for the perfect proposal, but must instead vote for something that guarantees a little something for all areas of the district. I do not expect that my school will receive the funds for a needed new science building, but I would be happy if we had funds to repair and update our performing arts center,” she said.
“I have full faith in the process of the Citizens Bond and Override Advisory Committee, as I did last year, and will support their proposal.”
New single family residential permits