Scottsdale Schools may pursue bond program as legacy facilities crumble

The Scottsdale Unified School District listens to a presentation earlier this month on the creation of a district-wide facilities master plan. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

The Scottsdale Unified School District listens to a presentation earlier this month on the creation of a district-wide facilities master plan. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Fueled by the creation of a district-wide facilities master plan, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board is mulling the potential for a bond election in November 2016 to improve, replace and renovate facilities — some of which are more than 50 years old.

The Blue Ribbon Advisory Council, a collection of both district and community stakeholders, presented the Governing Board Thursday, March 17 with its final recommendation on how to meet the tenets of the recently forged facilities master plan.

Within its final report, the advisory council suggests the school district ought to pursue a bond election to rebuild the district’s elementary schools. The advisory council’s recommendations include:

  • Rebuilding all SUSD elementary schools;
  • Providing properly sized learning environments for students and teachers based on enrollment tallies;
  • Taking into account cyclical trends of enrollments, neighborhood integrity, traffic patterns, and improved property use.

Governing Board President Bonnie Sneed says she expects both the Blue Ribbon recommendations on the facilities master plan and potential scope of a capital bond program to be discussed at a work session scheduled for Thursday, April 7.

Dr. Denise Birdwell

Dr. Denise Birdwell

“As stewards of the district, we have the fiduciary duty to manage our plants,” said Scottsdale Schools Interim Superintendent Denise Birdwell in a March 23 statement.

“The completeness of a master plan takes into consideration all systems from sprinkler systems to paint in the hallways. In addition to the facilities master plan the District is putting together continuous academic improvement processes. The teaching and learning that occurs inside the facilities is just as important as the health and safety of the environment.”

Dr. Birdwell contends father time has taken its toll on district facilities.

“We have a blend of new facilities and aging facilities,” she pointed out. “The district should be commended for its ability to have extended the life of buildings constructed in the 1950s. The Governing Board has been fiscally responsible to the community maintaining these buildings over time. However, it is evident time has taken its toll on these facilities.”

Attendance, current and projected, will play a critical role in how future district facilities will be built and renovated, Dr. Birdwell says.

“As we look at the district as a whole we recognize there are communities with aging populations and declining enrollments,” she explained. “There are also communities where we are seeing a resurgence. The market of education, however, is not just tied to the boundaries of a school district. Being a destination district we embrace the choice families outside of our boundaries make to attend our schools and benefit from the outstanding educational programs.”

Those specific neighborhood breakdown along with demographic date district-wide will be available to board members some time in April as they weigh the merits of a potential bond election and advisory council recommendations, according to Dr. Birdwell.

“As a superintendent I look at educational specialization that focuses on the learning processes as well as learning environments,” she said. “Changing facilities alone does not drive instruction. This is a dual process. If a building is changed, we also must address the educational practices that exist in that building.”

All points of view

As enrollment peaks and valleys continues to be a driver of conversation, Governing Board member Pam Kirby contends district leadership has to consider all points of view as major decisions are being weighed this spring.

Pam Kirby

Pam Kirby

“We have to strike a balance between ‘what local communities want’ vs. ‘what district-wide taxpayers are willing to pay’ for and develop a defensible and responsible plan,” Ms. Kirby said in a March 24 statement.

Ms. Kirby contends school repairs and renovation are needed — especially at the elementary school level throughout the district.

“SUSD has six schools that were built between 1957-61, making them 55-59 years old,” she said. “On the highest end, the Arizona School Facilities Board estimates the useful life of school construction materials to be 60 years, with the average being closer to 30 years.”

While it may be a tough sell, Ms. Kirby says the Governing Board is likely in a position to ask taxpayer for a bond measure.

“Asking taxpayers to fund new buildings when enrollment is declining is certainly more challenging than making the same ask when enrollment is increasing,” she said.

“However, the schools in most need of remodel/rebuild are clustered together in a relatively small geographic area. The thousands of students in this cluster of 50-plus-year-old schools, the changing educational landscape and evolving neighborhood demographics will certainly be factors in decision-making. There is no doubt a bond is needed to address our oldest schools.”

Ms. Kirby says a final decision on the matter would have to come no later than June for a bond measure to be placed on a November 2016 ballot.

“What is up for debate is the size and timing of that bond,” she explained. “In the past 60 days, SUSD has realized new momentum, driven solely by internal decision-making — the launch of elementary world languages, new organizational structure, and focus on program effectiveness, data, and accountability.”

Ms. Kirby says she is optimistic Scottsdale Schools can turn around recent enrollment declines.

“If we can sustain and grow this momentum it is possible SUSD will see enrollment increases in the very near future,” she said. “The difficult question becomes whether we are we willing to continue to make the internal systemic improvements required to justify the investment on our potential.”

The big picture

Ms. Sneed says the need for facility improvement is apparent district-wide.

Bonnie Sneed

Bonnie Sneed

“Scottsdale Unified School District is focused on serving our community with safe, efficient, and student-centered schools that enhance the vibrancy and attraction to our community and provide all of our youth with future-ready, innovative, and vibrant educational opportunities,” she said in a March 24 statement.

“Many of our schools are over fifty years old and have suffered from the lack of state building renewal funds for the last eight years. Last year alone, that capital line item in Scottsdale Unified School District’s budget was reduced by $9.5 million by the Arizona Legislature.”

Ms. Sneed contends using existing facilities is sucking money from the classroom due to primarily inefficient energy usage.

“These older buildings cost much more to operate due to constant need for repair, and some of the chillers are so old that it is difficult to find replacement parts,” she said. “The older buildings also are not energy efficient nor technology-friendly. Constant repair costs and high energy costs negatively impact the funding that could otherwise be infused into the classroom.”

While attendance will play a strong role in the next chapter of Scottsdale Schools facility management, Ms. Sneed says she does not want to consider decisions on a master plan scheme based on numbers alone.

“We need to be cautious not to fall into the trap of thinking of students as simply ‘numbers’ or ‘revenue generators.’ While there are certainly revenue considerations to retaining and attracting students, I hope to keep our focus on quality service to the families in our neighborhoods,” she said.

“In the district facilities master plan process, we need to consider not only how much enrollment we anticipate, but whether to invest in programmatic offerings to attract more students and answer the competitive factors. We also have to consider residential growth areas and demographic changes within the district boundaries.”

It’s time for a proactive approach to facilities management, Ms. Sneed says.

“In my opinion, we must be forward-thinking and provide the ultimate in service by considering the most reasonable and desirable spatial needs for each of our programmatic offerings,” she said. “This would result more appropriately-sized, updated, and energy efficient schools.”

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

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