By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia
Hundreds of new homes in North Peoria are hitting the market this summer or are about to be built, many poised to be inhabited by families with would be students of the Peoria Unified School District.
But at least two schools in the area are at capacity, one other is estimated to reach capacity by the 2018-19 school year and four others are projected to be at more than 92 percent capacity by the 2018-19 school year, according to numbers released in April by the PUSD Boundary Commitee.
Officials say funding is not potentially available for a new school to open until 2020.
Meanwhile, development marches on, charter schools multiply, and the district races against time.
At least three residential communities in North Peoria slated for about135 homes were put on the market this summer and at least four developments have pulled permits in recent months to build more than 100 homes.
Additionally, more than a dozen developments are planned for thousands of homes in North Peoria that have yet to be built.
Mayor Cathy Carlat said the city not in a position to prevent growth because the majority of vacant land in Peoria is owned by private landowners or the Arizona State Land Department. She said State Land is not public land and Peoria is not authorized to control what can occur on the land. Additionally, she said there are many laws that shield private property owners from being mandated to convert the land to a less intensive use or to leave it undeveloped.
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. Carlat said number one tool Peoria uses to direct current and future growth is through its general plan and zoning authority.
“When a developer comes to the city with a request to rezone their land, they are compelled to incorporate Peoria policies (in the general plan) relating to development including land use, density, standards of design, set-backs, amenities, and even safeguarding portions as open space,” she said. “Also, the zoning process requires neighborhood outreach, the submission of traffic studies, adherence to specific infrastructure obligations, and very importantly, proving a guarantee of 100 years of water for each home built.”
Heidi Vega, a spokeswoman for the Arizona School Board Association, said public school districts are at a disadvantage when it comes to new school construction. New school district facilities must be approved by the Arizona School Facilities Board by proving overcrowding and demonstrating a need through student enrollment data. Additionally, tax payers are double-paying for school buildings in some areas, Ms. Vega said.
A new two-story, 54,225 square-foot BASIS campus is finalizing construction on 8.5 acres for grades 5-12, near the northwest corner of Yearling Road and Lake Pleasant Parkway. The school, which did not require FSB approval, is set to open for classes Aug. 14.
“With growth, school districts have to work with the SFB, which usually takes about two years, to approve a new building, or go to their voters for bond approval. Assuming you get past that hurdle, there are charter schools that are expanding in growth areas that just build a school without any kind of coordination with a district or SFB,” Ms. Vega said. “If you’re a district that finally gets approval to start building a school because you’re overcrowded, you build a school, a big charter moves in and enrolls 700-900 kids, and takes a huge chunk of the students in the overcrowded area because it doesn’t have to go through the long approval process. Now you’ve got a school that’s under capacity and taxpayers have paid for two schools — the district one through bond or SFB money and the charter one through the state general fund.”
There are no laws that require developers to fund school districts to accommodate for growth.
Decades ago there was a proposed bill that would have required developers to pay school districts when building new developments in the district’s boundaries, but it did not pass at the state Legislature, Ms. Vega said.
“Developers can receive tax breaks as incentives when donating land to the districts,” Ms. Vega said. “There are developers that do partner with school districts depending on the city.”
Sunbelt Holdings has developed a number of mega master-planned communities in the Southwest, including McDowell Mountain Ranch in Scottsdale and Power Ranch in Gilbert, as well as Vistancia on 7,100 acres in northwest Peoria.
Vistancia North and South pledged the land for Vistancia and Lake Pleasant elementary schools, as well as a potential future school site. Vistancia was built in 2006, and Lake Pleasant was built in 2009. The Vistancia housing community is at about 55 percent build-out, according to city documents.
John Graham, president and CEO of Sunbelt Holdings, said his firm has donated land for at least 25 schools through various development agreements with schools and districts throughout the Southwest. This includes the two elementary schools in Vistancia.
It is the right thing to do, he said.
“We have always believed that schools have a lot to do with the heart and soul of a community. Part of our process involves talking to the districts or charters to see their interest. We typically help them locate school sites and then what happens from there varies,” Mr. Graham said. “Everybody is very focused on education, so we feel we can do a lot. Now, we can’t help with teacher pay, but we all have to figure this out together.”
Shea Homes pledged $1,000 per single family detached home for Trailside at Happy Valley, at the southwest corner of 93rd Avenue and Happy Valley Road, which opened this summer.
David Garcia, VP of land acquisition at Shea Homes Arizona, stated in an email that when the builder buys large tracts of land intended to be master-planned communities, it contacts the school district to determine their ability to serve the community. In some instances, school districts have adequate facilities. In these situations, Shea Homes typically pays a fee to the school district with each new home closing to support the operations of the existing schools. In other circumstances, a school district may need land for a new facility. When this has been the case, he said, Shea Homes donates land to school districts where new schools are built.
Shea Homes cares deeply about the communities where they build homes, he said.
“In either situation, land or fee, we work closely with school districts to ensure that our communities have access to public schools. Both Shea Homes and our buyers understand that community schools are a key element when it comes to selecting a new home,” Mr. Garcia stated in an email. “Over the years, we have contributed land or fees to support school districts all around the Valley, and will continue to do so as we open new communities to meet the growing demands of Arizona homebuyers.”
However, PUSD CFO Kenneth Hicks said majority of funds for new schools come from the state or a voter approved bonds.
And with the failure of a $192 million bond at the ballot box last year and the denial in May by the governing board of a similar bond proposal for the ballot this year, it is hard to say when funds will be available for a new school.
Mr. Hicks said the earliest a new school could be built and open is August 2020, and the earliest potential for a bond to be placed on the ballot is November 2018.
Mr. Hicks said in essence the district is cut $15 million each year from the state, which is the cost to build a new elementary school.
These funds must go to the growing capital needs within the growing areas of the district, which could include a new school, but also can include needs such as technology, text books and instructional aids. In addition, student transportation vehicles and playground equipment are other examples of capital expenses.
Mr. Hicks said the total amount the district has available from developer donations is about $1.7 million.
This could supplement new equipment at a new school and provide support to growing areas, but not pay for the cost of a new school, he said.
“I don’t believe that the district will ever have enough (funds from developers) to build a school,” Mr. Hicks said.
In April, the governing board approved new boundaries for the eight PUSD elementary schools north of Bell Road to adjust for overcrowding. Zuni Hills Elementary School is projected to reach capacity by the 2018-19 school year, according to estimates from the district. Lake Pleasant, Parkridge, Sunset Heights and Vistancia elementary schools are projected to reach 93 percent capacity or more by the 2018-19 school year.
Governing Board member Monica Ceja Martinez said development is not going away and the district and city have been coping with this situation through the same lens and handling it the same way for years.
Ms. Ceja Martinez said the city, district and developers need to work together to create facilities so all three groups get something out of the game. She said the $1,000 generally donated per new home is a very small percentage of the construction cost for a new school.
“We need to start thinking outside box,” she said. “The issue with developers providing land is that we don’t have the funds to crate the infrastructure. It’s like creating a computer without internet.”
The following are pledges from recently opened or developing housing communities in the northern part of Peoria, according to the developer assistance agreements between the district and developers.
Trailside at Happy Valley: 93rd Avenue and Happy Valley Road, $1000 per single family detached
Tierra Del Rio: 107th Avenue and Jomax Road, $1000 per single family detached
The Meadows: Lake Pleasant Parkway and Deer Valley Road, pledged a potential future school site
Vistancia North & South: Vistancia Boulevard near El Mirage Road, pledged the land for Vistancia and Lake Pleasant elementary schools, as well a potential future site
These are the residential student projections and capacity percentages for the 2018-19 school year for eight PUSD elementary schools in North Peoria. They are residential projections, or the estimated students that will live in a school’s boundary. This does not necessarily mean that all of those students will attend the school they are zoned, which is what it would take for that school to reach capacity. These statistics were released by the district’s Boundary Committee in April.