Abandonment anxiety clouds BASIS Scottsdale expansion

A view of Shea Boulevard from the site proposed for a new BASIS Charter School in northeast Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

A view of Shea Boulevard from the site proposed for a new BASIS charter school in northeast Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

A new charter school is likely to be built at the southwest corner of 128th Street and Shea Boulevard — but the scope of operation, proposed student count and building structure may still be evolving.

BASIS Schools Inc. seeks to build a new middle- and high-school facility on about eight acres of land where the city of Scottsdale controls several easements at the proposed location including a General Land Office patent, which was established by the Small Tract Act of 1938.

Proposed plans call for a two-story structure to house about 1,200 students as charter school officials say the school has outgrown its already established location a few miles north of the proposed property, which is one of 14 Arizona BASIS sites.

Scottsdale City Council must abandon those easements to allow proposed plans to move forward; however, those plans were denied by the Scottsdale Development Review Board on Feb. 4 while a month earlier the Scottsdale Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve construction plans at the proposed site, records show.

Scottsdale City Council is expected to render a vote in the matter 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23 at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.

Empowered by the Arizona Legislature, charter schools in Arizona are now considered the same in terms of zoning law as public schools and churches, state law stipulates. In this case, if Scottsdale City Council opts to not abandon those easements BASIS can still build on the site, but only on portions not protected by the adopted easements, city officials say.

Hundreds of letters in both support and opposition have been received by city council members with even Gov. Doug Ducey offering his support for the BASIS project in a Feb. 4 letter to Scottsdale City Council.

If abandonments are not granted by Scottsdale City Council, legal representation in this matter for BASIS, Dale S. Zeitlin of Phoenix-based Zeitlin & Zeitlin, say they will sue the city for damages, a Feb. 5 letter to the Scottsdale City Attorney’s Office states.

Zoning issues aside, residents around the proposed location have voiced opposition to the project citing the scope of proposed operations including traffic flow, parking and general roadway safety concerns.

A view of what the BASIS school could look like at 128th Street and Shea Boulevard. (Submitted graphic)

A view of what the BASIS school could look like at 128th Street and Shea Boulevard. (Submitted graphic)

Nailing down the concern

Scottsdale resident Tim Heinmann has formed a limited liability corp. coined Citizens Safety Services under the umbrella of his nonprofit outreach entity, he says, to help residents and BASIS officials find a happy medium.

“The general consensus that we have heard is that residents like the idea of BASIS, the education it brings,” he said in a Feb. 16 phone interview. “The dispute they have is the site that has been selected brings an extra amount of safety risk and a risk to children.”

Mr. Heinmann says neighborhood concerns revolve around the potential for extreme car queuing at times of pick-up and drop-off as the busy street of Shea Boulevard is a six-lane thoroughfare.

“The controversial issue is how far the consequences extend around the school, around the streets and the neighborhood,” he said. “Once the city approves the school site, then it takes on the responsibility of those consequences. Our position is to get the facts out on the table.”

New sites are being looked at by this resident group while Mr. Heinmann says a group of residents have agreed to buy the land back from BASIS in the event a suitable alternative is chosen.

“We are looking at a number of different sites that might be better for everyone — specifically, the BASIS parents and kids,” he contends. “We have about a dozen or so individuals who would be willing to buy back the land. We have a clear understanding that BASIS is up against the wall or deadline to get students in classes by next August. The win-win solution is that there is an alternate site for everyone concerned in the community.”

Jordan Rose of the Rose Law Group says resident and neighborhood concerns will be alleviated and the site chosen is the right fit for BASIS Schools.

“We feel like we have been working well with the residents and hope to have a document that makes at least a lot of them happy,” she said in a Feb. 16 phone interview of a development agreement being devised to help alleviate resident concerns over traffic congestion and general operations.

“Three traffic engineers — hired by BASIS, the BASIS booster club, residents and city’s own — have all concluded the site configured currently is safe and queuing will not occur at 128th Street and Shea. All four traffic engineers have concluded the site works.”

Ms. Rose is the zoning attorney representing BASIS Schools in this matter and she argues proposed plans and forthcoming adjustments will improve traffic flow at 128th Street and Shea Boulevard.

“With the BASIS improvements, the traffic situation in that area will get better, not worse,” she said. “This is the site that works the best, it is safe and the traffic situation works.”

New kid on the block

Scottsdale Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell says the addition of another BASIS site will do nothing but improve the overall educational landscape within Scottsdale, a challenge she welcomes.

Dr. Denise Birdwell

Dr. Denise Birdwell

“I am a big believer that competition is good and makes everyone better,” she said in a Feb. 17 written response to e-mailed questions.

“We have created a culture and climate where students come first. An education in Scottsdale schools is limitless. Our students are exposed to program offerings and rigor unmatched by any other. Scottsdale is the district of choice with 31 distinguished choice schools. From cradle to college and career our students are future ready.”

But the charter school model is one district officials are keeping a close eye on as enrollment numbers continue to dwindle at SUSD, school officials admit.

“Charters schools have prompted us to be better about touting our successes and sharing our story,” Dr. Birdwell said. “The truth is, with 31 different schools, Scottsdale unified is the right fit for every student. We encourage families to tour our campuses and learn more about the culture and climate that is rich in 120 years of success, evolution and continued innovation.”

While charter schools can offer a new approach to education, SUSD remains a top choice for the entire student, Dr. Birdwell contends.

“Scottsdale takes great pride in educating the whole child with a focus on academic excellence, fine and performing arts as well as athletics,” she said.

“We recognize all children can learn however one size does not fit all. In fact there are countless pathways that lead to post-secondary success and it is our job to ensure that each of  our students is challenged on the path that best suits them.”

The anxiety of abandonment

Scottsdale Vice Mayor David Smith says he believes in the academic mission of BASIS Schools but is still unsure of where he stands on the issue of easement abandonment due to staunch resident outcry over the location and proposed traffic flow.

David Smith

David Smith

“Everybody, myself included, applaud the school as an academic institution. I have nothing but the highest regard for the education endeavor,” he said in a Feb. 16 phone interview.

“With that said, that is not the right location for the new school. The state Legislature granted charter schools the same preeminent rights that public schools have — they don’t have to concern themselves with what the zoning for this property is. In this particular case, they need council approval for one aspect of their development. In order for them to further develop the eight- or 10-acre property they need the city to abandon the GLO easements on the property.”

Vice Mayor Smith says the easement abandonment is the only bargaining chip the city has in this unique case.

“Normally, the city is not a stickler about granting an abandonment of an easement but in this case it is the only leverage the city has to articulate its concerns about the safety of this site,” he said. “That is really the issue so many neighbors are concerned about.”

Vice Mayor Smith says it is likely BASIS builds a school at the proposed site, with or without the sought abandonment.

“If they do that, my attitude would be they have done what they are legally allowed to do,” he said. “They can still build even if the city didn’t grant this easement. I am not influenced one way or another absent of the easement.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Linda Milhaven says she hopes through the use of an adopted development agreement some resident concerns be solved.

“The development agreement is the only way to mitigate the impacts the school is going to have on the neighborhood,” she said in a Feb. 16 phone interview. “Here is the concern: I feel like everyone is playing chicken. If we vote, ‘no,’ they still have the right to build the school. If they are going to build the school anyway, shouldn’t the neighbors get all the protections they can get?”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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