Scottsdale residents speak out against Tonalea school conversion

For WEB SUSDScottsdale residents who live near Tonalea Elementary School came out in force at the Jan. 13 Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board meeting to oppose an apparent plan to convert the defunct schoolhouse into a community resource center.

Members of the Tonalea community spoke out during the meeting and called into question the need for the facility, the scope of the proposed operation, and a lease agreement signed days ago between a top SUSD administrator and a former board member.

Members of the Governing Board, in one way or another, say they were not aware of plans to convert Tonalea into a community resource center despite a signed lease agreement between Denny Brown, a former board member, and Daniel O’Brien, SUSD’s chief financial officer.

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board.

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board.

The lease agreement, which is between the period of December 2014 and June of this year, allows Mr. Brown, who left the school board last month, to function as tenant of the media center building at 6801 E. Oak St., which is on the campus of Tonalea Elementary School.

The lease agreement states the tenant shall be charged a monthly rent payment of $1 while the district will pick up the monthly tab for electricity, gas and water utilities so the facility will be able to provide “community services and events,” the lease states.

The lease does not specify the planned operations. A community needs survey was, however, conducted in conjunction with Arizona State University and the United Food Bank, which school officials say illustrates the need for a centralized community resource center.

The survey was paid for by a grant provided to Arizona State University and no district dollars were spent.

Residents living in the area don’t agree. Some see the southern Scottsdale sector beginning to realize an economic rebirth and feel the school district should focus on filling schools with teachers to teach and children to be taught.

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board unanimously voted in March of last year to close Tonalea Elementary School at the end of this school year due to significantly low attendance.

Resident opposition

Of the 15 parents who spoke at the meeting, none expressed support for the community resource center.

Mike DiLarenzo

Mike DiLorenzo

“We learned on Saturday that there is an agenda item to locate a community center at the closed Tonalea school,” said Mike DiLorenzo, a Scottsdale resident within the Coronado school community. “The more we learned about it the more we don’t want anything else to be put there besides a school.”

Mr. DiLorenzo says the proposed services, which he speculates might have something to do with a food bank, are redundant due to similar services available nearby.

“There has been no study on the impact of quality of life in our neighborhood,” he said. “Nobody in our neighborhood knew about this contract before today and many are hearing about this for this first time. I would like to see the closing of Tonalea revisited.”

The Governing Board originally voted to withhold the presentation on the community resource center prior to the call-to-the-public portion of the meeting.

That was until Pam Kirby, a Governing Board member, mentioned the governing body ought to follow open meeting guidelines.

“We have a 24-hour notice policy, right?” she asked. “If we walk in here today and try to pull an item then we won’t be in line with the attorney general open meeting guidelines.”

With so many parents in the room, Ms. Kirby felt it made sense for the board to discuss the topic.

“We have a very large group of people that want to hear about this. There is quite a bit of rumor, conjecture on what is going on here,” she pointed out. “We are here tonight, so let’s start this discussion.”

‘Plethora of questions’

Governing Board President Bonnie Sneed says the proposal and community comments create more questions than answers as to why there is a lease agreement between Mr. Brown and the district for use of the proposed facility.

“There seems to be a perception that we discussed or had a meeting to decide this before and that is not the case,” she said at the onset of the governing board discussion.

“I have just a plethora of questions. I have liability questions. We do care about our kids and we do care about our families.”

During the district presentation, Dr. Milissa Sackos, executive director of student services, outlined “the benefit and link to educational excellence” a community resource center can offer a community.

She pointed to a community resource center in Chandler, which is operated in partnership with the Chandler Unified School District, as an example of success.

“They provide support to our students and our families, but one of the challenges is proximity to these services,” she said of the proposed facility. “It is not only about the academic support but also the emotional support for our students — it is beyond food bank lines.”

Following a host of apologies from each board member about the lack of communication to the Tonalea community regarding the project, Dr. David Peterson, SUSD superintendent, said “at this point, we wouldn’t even pursue that.”

As for why the lease agreement was signed without Governing Board approval, no answer was given.

“If it’s a standard lease, it should have come to the board,” said Ms. Kirby. “All standard leases come to the board but this did not.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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