It’s been nearly one year since Scottsdale voters approved a $229 million bond package to upgrade and renovate schools within the Scottsdale Unified School District.
Voters last November gave the district the green light — and the financial permission — to push forward to enhance the physical facilities, which officials contend will enhance the educational experience.
Now, one year later, the first three of eight elementary school rebuilds are in the works, while renovations have already been made on four other campuses.
Since last November, SUSD’s Governing Board and top district officials have publicly discussed details relating to the bond package on almost a monthly basis.
Rarely does a governing board meeting fail to address some aspect of the planned projects: From discussing future plans, choosing architects and even selecting the color of the brick used in a school’s renovation.
SUSD’s leadership has been steadily moving forward with a multitude of projects earmarked for the bond money. Renovations and planning for a complete rebuild have commenced at a handful of SUSD’s 29 campuses.
Progress has moved forward at a fever pitch, only to be slowed down recently by parents at Hopi Elementary School who claim they want to have greater say on what types of work will be done at their school.
Over the past 11 months, SUSD officials and their hired hands have gotten to work redesigning and planning improvements at many schools, in addition to reviewing security and lifecycle needs at each facility.
They’ve moved fast. Maybe too fast. Hopi parents and another recently organized group have questioned a number of the board’s decisions — decisions ranging from the selection of architects to the openness of the entire process.
“We began with a process that allowed us to legally procure an architect, that seems to be a continued question in the processing,” Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell explained, at an Oct. 25 meeting, of the process their first school rebuild has gone through.
“We also went through a procurement process to hire Core Construction, a competitive bidding process. They were selected from multiple firms.”
The five elected members of the Governing Board have been engaged throughout the process, Dr. Birdwell noted, stating they have approved the design, construction and architect firms for Hopi Elementary.
“The difference between now and maybe 30 days ago, is we’ve gotten more input from our teacher group, more input from our committee and more input from the community, and we have looked at what we can do to better the design we have put together,” she said.
Dr. Birdwell explained that the Oct. 25 sit-down amongst community members and district officials at Mohave District Annex was due to a vocal community asking for the rebuild project to slow down.
“I don’t know if that was the right decision,” she said of deciding to pause the Hopi Elementary project.
“It certainly wasn’t intended to divide a community, it was intended to be responsive to the community. In hindsight, I don’t know, I can’t second-guess myself. I felt if we stopped, paused, and briefly had a discussion it might benefit the community.
“I too, am disheartened that this community has divided itself over a school build. It certainly is painful to see what this community is going through but that doesn’t prevent us from doing our jobs.”
In the beginning
Looking back, on Nov. 8, 2016, SUSD’s voters approved a $229 million bond, and an $8.5 million capital override — both of which district officials said were crucial for students.
A bond is one way the school district can ask the taxpayers to support them above and beyond money the state gives them, and can legally only be used for buildings and buses.
The capital override allows the district to collect taxpayer’s dollars for additional funding and support to pay for items such as books, curriculum, technology, chairs, desks and playground equipment. The last capital override in the district ended three years ago.
In spring 2016, the district began a needs assessment on its 29 physical school campuses, Independent records show.
In asking for $229 million, SUSD officials said the money would be targeted to the following areas:
- Eight elementary schools needed to be re-built, absorbing 56.6 percent of the bond;
- Twenty-two schools needed lifecycle improvements, which would account for 21.5 percent of the bond;
- Nine schools needed learning environment remodels; 9.2 percent;
- Transportation updates were needed in all five learning communities; 2.6 percent;
- Security upgrades at every school; 3.3 percent;
- Physical education and athletics needs at all five high schools; 6.8 percent.
Soon after voters approved the bond, district officials and two architectural firms — Hunt and Caraway and Orcutt Winslow — presented sample plans, timelines and school information during a December study session.
Hopi Elementary School, 5110 E. Lafayette Blvd. in Phoenix, was chosen as the top priority — rebuild No. 1 — on Dec. 13, 2016. It was deemed a priority because of its aging and crowded campus, board members explained during last year’s December meeting.
As the rebuild process progressed, a community undercurrent began to swirl as a number of parents and neighbors felt they were left out of the process — a problem that resulted in several community meetings, one petition with over 1,000 signatures and a call for the project to be halted.
The Governing Board on Dec. 13, 2016, approved on consent the approval to purchase architectural services with Hunt and Caraway. The December agenda stated the architectural fees would range from 6.5 to 7.5 percent given the complexity of the project.
Also on Dec. 13, 2016, Hohokam Traditional School was designated as project No. 2, although Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell at that time explained Hohokam’s construction would not begin for several months. The Governing Board officially voted to move forward with Hohokam’s project in February 2017.
Pima Elementary was soon designated project No. 3.
Outside of the major rebuilds, a number of SUSD campuses have seen work as well: The athletic field has been redone at Coronado, Chaparral and Saguaro high schools; while Cheyenne Traditional School has been receiving improvements to its administration building, gymnasium and is having a science lab installed.
Cheyenne Traditional, 13636 N. 100th St., is a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school that had its renovations unanimously approved on Jan. 17, at an estimated cost of $7.6 million.
On Jan. 17 the Governing Board also voted unanimously to approve its first bond sale in the amount of $45 million, and purchase architect services from Orcutt-Winslow. The January agenda stated Orcutt-Winslow will progress with planning and designing for the remodel and new construction projects on the Cheyenne Traditional School campus.
Orcutt-Winslow’s fees also range from 6.5-7.5 percent.
In early 2017, the district’s draft list of other projects to be completed with monies from the first 2017 bond sale included:
- Start Hopi Elementary School rebuild;
- Start unnamed school No. 2 rebuild;
- Cheyenne Traditional School classroom space, gymnasium, front office and parking lot renovations;
- Saguaro High School football field and track replacement;
- Coronado High School football field and track replacement;
- Chaparral High School football field and track replacement;
- Upgrading and installation on cameras at campuses;
- Upgrading of door hardware for security purposes;
- Upgrading and renovating of site front offices.
On March 21, the Governing Board voted 5-0 to officially name Pima Elementary School as its third rebuild project, with the transition to a traditional school philosophy, while Hohokam transitioned to a regular kindergarten-sixth grade school this fall.
Pima Elementary School is eyed to open a new campus with a new curriculum August 2018.
Pima Elementary School has historically operated in a traditional manner, and many of the teachers have been trained in Spalding phonics and Saxton math curriculum, district officials explained last March.
The district recommendation for the Governing Board was to:
- Reopen the school in August 2018 as a K-5 traditional school;
- Keep Pima boundaries the same, but allow for open enrollment;
- Designate a sister school for students who want non-traditional education;
- Use the 2017-18 school year for teacher training and staff development centered around traditional school philosophy and practices.
Hopi plans draw opposition
The district moved quickly on its “to-do” list of renovations throughout the district, but that momentum slowed recently when neighbors living next to the No. 1 school targeted for a rebuild became angered over design plans.
All eyes moved to Hopi Elementary School in May when the governing board got its first look at plans to rebuild the school.
Hopi Elementary School, built in 1960, is considered challenging because of its small and crowded campus, district officials say.
President of Hunt Caraway, Brian Robichaux’s May plans illustrated an 18-month project that would essentially flip its current layout, and include a one-story school building, separate administration building, four playgrounds and three basketball courts.
Plans depict athletic fields on the west side of the property, with school buildings on the east.
Mr. Robichaux has since been replaced by Tamara Caraway, due to illness, district officials say.
The site needs all new power, electrical and gas infrastructure, the parking and traffic flow has been re-created, and the school building includes 32 classrooms.
As the spring and summer stretched on, district officials were attempting to find an agreeable facade —or elevation in construction lingo —for Hopi.
A 12-person bond committee comprised of Hopi Elementary faculty, parents and community members were first presented with a couple of outside design options back in April and June. Neither option received popular support.
In August, two options were presented to the Governing Board, where they voted 5-0 to collectively approve moving forward with construction after the Hopi Elementary community chooses one of the facades.
On Sept. 27, however, a number of Hopi Elementary parents and neighbors showed up to a community meeting with questions about the design, the process and the overall project. Construction fences were slated to go up that Saturday, Sept. 30.
On Oct. 1, a Change.org petition was created, and garnered over 1,200 signatures in its initial days of being circulated. Reasons behind signing the petition ranged from concerns about traffic, drainage, windows in classrooms and the need to demolish and rebuild the school. A number of those who signed the petition thought the proposed new look of the school building didn’t match the neighborhood.
Just before 5 p.m. on Oct. 4, Superintendent Birdwell released a statement defending plans for the school. She penned a 3 1/2-page letter that included a table comparing Hopi campus space and the proposed design, and a map showing bicycle and pedestrian routes.
Dr. Birdwell noted the district is not changing the school’s footprint, but officials were willing to continue to improve design elements with continuing feedback from the community.
The district scheduled a public meeting Oct. 16 to give parents a chance to ask questions of those behind the project.
A panel put together by the district included:
- John Tomasson, CORE Construction;
- Tamara Caraway, Hunt and Caraway Architects;
- Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell;
- Principal Tamara Jagodzinski;
- Parent and neighbor Andrew Seidenberg;
- SUSD Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg.
So far, $750,000 of a $21 million budget has been spent on the Hopi Elementary rebuild, district officials explained during the Oct. 16 meeting.
One day later, Dr. Birdwell announced all work at Hopi would be temporarily suspended.
“It never astounds me how much I learn from these meetings, no matter how difficult they might be, when you stand back later and reflect what’s your take away?” Dr. Birdwell stated during her superintendent’s comments portion of the meeting.
“There’s no doubt that we had many of those today.”
The project has been put on pause and construction has stopped while district officials look at their options, Dr. Birdwell stated.
The past two months of conversation and community turmoil led to an early-morning Oct. 25 special meeting, where SUSD’s Governing Board decided to continue with its plan with layout changes.
Six options were presented to the Governing Board, ranging from making no changes, to ending construction and possibly shutting the school down in May 2018.
The Governing Board voted 4-1 to move forward with the alteration, which is expected to bring the project in $531,848 over its $21 million budget, district numbers show.
“Option B” as it was coined by the school district includes 15 changes that have been identified. They include:
- Playground moved away from building;
- Potential elevation changes;
- Add an outdoor Amphitheater;
- Shorten the bus drop off; and
- Moving rooms with building-high or no windows.
The elected leaders each voiced their opinion on the divisive school rebuild, with several of the elected women noting the hundreds of emails they have received on the issue.
One of the two newer Governing Board members, Allyson Beckham, spoke about her position as an outlier in this situation.
“Please do know I have read every email up until about 7:30 this morning, and I heard you,” she said on Oct. 25.
“I am confronting something — we are going to have existing neighbors in every single one of our rebuilds, that I think want to have an input like Hopi has showed us. I don’t think it’s that unique.”
Ms. Beckham expressed her opinion that she is in agreement with some of the public that the community should be involved in the process at an earlier point.
“I believe that because they are rebuilds, and not new builds, we need to engage our community at an earlier stage, this is where I am an outlier,” she explained.
“I believe it should have happened earlier, I believe it should happen now. I believe we can still work with our committee, but we’ve got to come up with some hybrid to engage the neighbors and community.”
Ms. Beckham asked for a different process, and for the Governing Board to have a discussion on how the process can improve.
“We are in a different arena right now with these rebuilds versus the academics,” she explained of the district’s focus. “I support Dr. Birdwell and her cabinet and what they’re doing. I want to see Dr. Birdwell and her cabinet focused on academics, maybe we can come up with a way that their time not be taken up by this rebuild and can be focused on those academics.”
Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg said she looks forward to discussions on process, noting they will be lively conversations.
“In my opinion these emotionally charged decisions like these, I struggle to see a perfect process with input,” Board President Perleberg said. “With 20/20 hindsight you can always look back and say ‘oh man we got just the right number of people giving us input,’ I think that’s always going to be a challenge.”
Ms. Beckham was the lone dissenter in the 4-1 vote to continue the Hopi Elementary plan with lay-out changes.