Athletic facility pursuit alerts northern Scottsdale community

A view of the end of the road on 91st Street, near where city of Scottsdale and Great Hearts Academy are looking to build a park with athletic amenities. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

What appears to be a land deal struck between Great Hearts Academies and the city of Scottsdale is raising eyebrows in the DC Ranch community — as some residents are voicing concerns of public dollars subsidizing an educational entity.

Located just east of the Loop 101, is an open field of undeveloped land identified by the city of Scottsdale to be developed into a neighborhood park that fell victim to the pitfall of the Great Recession.

Now, a local school has stepped forward with a request to build their new athletic facility on the land, aiming to be the newest neighbor and amenity for Scottsdale’s northern community, DC Ranch.

Scottsdale Preparatory, 16537 N. 92nd Street, is a public charter school seeking to offer its students an athletic facility complete with a football field, track & field facilities along with sand volleyball and tennis courts.

This new facility would provide amenities to the students of the school who have been without since opening 10 years ago.

An initial approval required from Scottsdale City Council to begin planning for the development was removed from the Tuesday, April 4, agenda at the last minute due to what city officials cite as a request for additional input.

Originally on the April 4 consent agenda was the initiation of a municipal use master site plan for DC Ranch Park, a 12.8-acre parcel located near Pima Road and Union Hills Drive, to provide athletic facilities for Scottsdale Preparatory that would double as a public park.

The agenda item received public outcry from Scottsdale Unified School District supporters as the plan was focused on using taxpayer land in a deal with the parent company of Scottsdale Preparatory, Great Hearts Academies.

A Scottsdale Independent letter to the editor brought the issue into question, stating this agenda item was a facility for the educational entity, and not for the DC Ranch neighborhood.

City officials say the item was pulled from the agenda to have more discussion and understanding of the issues surrounding the proposed park.

“We pulled the item to allow time for more input and understanding of the issue,” said Kelly Corsette, a spokesman for the city, in an April 4 prepared statement.

“Staff will meet with representatives from DC Ranch and Great Hearts Academy and we will attempt to reschedule the item for the April 25 City Council meeting.”

An evolving educational landscape

The plot of land in question is at 91st Street and Trailside, was a part of a package of land parcels DC Ranch dedicated to the city years ago. Other parcels include a community area inside DC Ranch at Desert Camp and Thompson Peak.

Scottsdale Unified School District operates 30 public schools throughout the city of Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Phoenix. The district provides open enrollment throughout its district, but the school serving the DC Ranch area is Copper Ridge School, a K-8 at 10101 E. Thompson Peak Pkwy.

SUSD Superintendent. Dr. Denise Birdwell, says she is not concerned about a competitor school threatening the educational landscape throughout Scottsdale.

“No,” Dr. Birdwell said when asked if she had concerns.

“The city is a great partner in education. They have assisted the district in joint use facilities as well,” she said in a April 5 writeen response to e-mailed questions.

Dr. Birdwell welcomes healthy competition, and says they are continuing to focus on attracting teachers and students.

“The Scottsdale District is focused on raising teachers’ pay to attract and retain highly qualified teachers,” she explained. “We are committed to providing our learning environments the educational materials and equipment needed to meet the needs of all learners.”

Submitted initial plans of what Scottsdale Preparatory’s athletic fields could look like. (photo by city of Scottsdale)

Healthy competition

Scottsdale Preparatory houses middle and high school students on its campus, with an elementary school near the Scottsdale Airpark.

Great Hearts Academy Chief Innovation Officer and Senior Vice President for Advocacy, Erik Twist, says many DC Ranch residents attend Scottsdale Preparatory.

“A vast majority of Scottsdale Preparatory families live in Scottsdale,” he said. “And a lot live in DC Ranch.”

In 2000, the city voters passed a bond for parks and recreation projects, which included creating a neighborhood park at this DC Ranch location, according to Bill Murphy, city of Scottsdale community services executive director.

The potential land deal became the focus of conversation at a March 15 Parks and Recreation Commission public hearing.

“As the budget process moved forward and as the economy went down in 2007, we really delayed any of our park planning at that point,” Mr. Murphy explained at the March 15 Parks and Recreation meeting. “So that sat for upwards of 20 years.”

Fast forward to 2016, Great Hearts Academies purchased land adjacent to the Trailside plot, at 91st Street and Palo Brea, for the development of athletic facilities.  In December 2016, the DC Ranch Community Association and Great Hearts representatives met with Scottsdale’s community services department to discuss the possibility of joint use of the neighborhood park, according to the April 4 city council report.

Great Hearts would now like to forgo development of their land, and rather fund the development of the park site, including park and athletic amenities for the school and the public, city officials say.

“Great Hearts approached the city (asking) if we had interest in working with them with our existing site,” Mr. Murphy explained. “Our desire obviously would be to build a park when future funding might become available, so we looked at this opportunity to explore those options.”

Initial plans show the athletic facility would include a full size football field where soccer and lacrosse could be played; bleachers or other seating option; a parking lot; and tennis courts that could also serve as pickleball courts.

If the Great Hearts deal falls through, the undeveloped park site will remain on the community services master plan, listed as unfunded on the citywide Capital Improvement Project list.

Mr. Twist says the school will be providing an athletic facility for its students regardless of which plot of land it’s on.

“The proposed plan going before the city was an idea that originally came to us from DC Ranch residents,” Mr. Twist said. “They weren’t thrilled with the 3-acre parcel purchased, and through conversation and trying to be a good neighbor, we pursued a site that was always designated as a park.”

“We’ve been looking for quite some time. The land prices in north Scottsdale make it difficult for a charter school to purchase and develop up there. Really, we’re just trying to get something these students and their parents have wanted for some time.”

Mr. Twist says the athletic facilities aren’t a matter of trying to grow the school — as they are full with a wait list, he says — it’s the commitment to offer students all the best programs.

As of Thursday, April 6, the Scottsdale Prep campus is home to 788 middle school and high school students.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.