Scottsdale school board opts to rebuild Cherokee, but restore fire-ravaged Navajo

Navajo Elementary School is at 7501 E. Oak St. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The threat of derailing a successful science, technology, engineering, arts and math program — an effort that feeds into one of Scottsdale Unified School District’s high schools — was enough to persuade the local Governing Board to refurbish Navajo Elementary School after a fire earlier this year.

Additionally, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board voted unanimously to rebuild Cherokee Elementary School as the next bond project.

On Tuesday, Oct. 16, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board held a regular monthly meeting where a collective group of Navajo Elementary School parents and faculty wearing red T-shirts plead for district leaders to refurbish smoke-damaged classrooms with insurance money.

An August fire that started in a storage room has left the school’s population displaced due to mostly smoke and asbestos damage. The students and teachers have moved three miles down the road to Oak Street Academy, a campus owned by SUSD, but no longer being used as a school.

Navajo Elementary has a reported 402 students, including pre-kindergarten, Title 1 and PANDA students.

Soon after the fire, Navajo’s future became tethered to an Oct. 4 conversation about district enrollment and possible school consolidation.

The conversation came and went, and Navajo parents and community members say they were still unsure one way or another of what the school’s future would look like.

During the same time, the school district’s top administration — which is mostly all new due to turmoil that unfolded last year — was evaluating its next steps with millions of approved taxpayer bond dollars.

The initial plan when the $229 million bond passed in November 2016 was to rebuild eight elementary schools, among other infrastructure projects. Hopi and Pima elementary schools have been rebuilt, while Cheyenne Traditional School received new facilities, high school athletic fields were renewed and security upgrades were installed.

While bond projects have been completed, the administration, which planned the bond nearly two years ago, has been replaced in large part. And, school district officials say, changes in student population can change over time.

When Navajo caught fire, the already congested conversation about Scottsdale’s bond rebuilds became even more lengthy when insurance money was brought into the discussion. Interim Chief Financial Officer Jeff Gadd said at the Oct. 16 meeting that he’s still waiting on information from the insurance company, and numbers presented were an educated guess.

Ultimately, the board voted 4-1 to, for an estimated $10,000 deductible, use insurance money to restore the school to its condition prior to the fire. Additionally, the school district would invest money for front office security upgrades. Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg was the dissenting vote.

Navajo Elementary School is at 7501 E. Oak St. in Scottsdale, and Cherokee Elementary School is at 8801 N. 56th St. in the Town of Paradise Valley.

Navajo Elementary School is closed temporarily due to an Aug. 22 fire. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The red brick school in Old Town

Navajo Elementary School and its STEAM program were described to be an adored, and sought-after, school by members of the public who spoke at the meeting.

Many of them asked for the Governing Board to refurbish the school back to what it was, and save the Buffalo’s potential rebuild conversation for a later date. Mr. Gadd presented a handful of options to the Governing Board, which included rebuilding the school for $15 million-$20 million.

Mom of two, Shanda Carrithers, was one of the speakers asking for the school to be restored, detailing how the STEAM program inspired her son early on.

“My son and I got to go to the world robotics competition when he was in first grade. His love for STEM continued to grow, he came home as a 6-year-old and wanted to go to MIT,” Ms. Carrithers said.

“He was a part of the first unofficial STEAM design academy, and along with his closest friends from Navajo, they’re all thriving as freshmen in Saguaro’s math and science academy.”

Ten years ago as young parents, her and her husband fell in love with Navajo Elementary, she said, calling it both their home school and their choice school. Now, their second child is in her last year at the elementary school.

“Why would we ever choose to consolidate such an amazing program?” she asked. “Why would we get rid of a popular style of learning, especially when our closest high school has an amazing, well recognized math and science academy.”

The math and science academy at Saguaro High School provides enhanced opportunities in the STEM field, the school website states, and identifies guidelines including enrolling in advanced courses and participating in national competitions.

Parent and Realtor Drew Burns lives in the Navajo Elementary School neighborhood, and his children are 4- and 1-years-old, he says.

“We’re in that timeframe of life where we’re trying to figure out where our kids are going,” he said, calling attention to the charming fact his students could walk to their neighborhood school.

“Through the years — and people in this room have told me this — Navajo just keeps getting better. The reputation keeps getting better. I work in real estate so I work with so many young families in the neighborhood. When you talk about the local schools — Navajo, you talk about the programs, you see the campus, you see where it is, the whole thing just looks awesome.”

Mr. Burns says now that it’s in open enrollment season, he sees his peers begin to tour other facilities for their children because Navajo’s future is unknown.

“Everyone’s talking about (how) their plan was to go to Navajo; everyone hears about the school, the reputation keeps getting better and better,” he explained.

“You guys need to have a stronger message that there is going to be a restore, that there is going to be something happening. Because I think people are kind of lost, and if you’re worrying about enrollment, people are going to drift. While Navajo does have a great reputation, I think people are confused about where they’re going to head.”

Mr. Burns closed by asking the Governing Board to give younger children some momentum coming into the school year.

Barbara Perleberg (Photo by Arianna Grainey)

A harsh reality

Just as the Governing Board was discussing options for their schools — a proposed repair at Navajo, and rebuilding at least one other school — Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg presented how she viewed the situation.

While people were asking the board for an answer one way or another, Ms. Perleberg says she would love to give them an answer but more time to make long-desired decisions impacting the future of SUSD is paramount.

“It was asked earlier tonight, why when this horrible fire happened, and conversations had to begin, why were there jumps to consolidation or closure or anything like that?” she said with a shaky voice. “It is because for over a decade, this district has known, that our enrollments were declining, our schools were too small to be sustainable. And we haven’t dealt with it as a district — we haven’t.”

Ten years prior, Ms. Perleberg was a passionate Pima Elementary School mom fighting to keep her school open. She says it was then that reality hit about sustaining the school district.

“We had a giant question being presented to us by the then-administration — four superintendents ago, three Governing Boards ago — that if we wanted to have the classrooms we need for our students, if we wanted to have the programs we need for our students, if we want to have the pay for our staff that we want to have, we can’t sustain more capacity in our district then what we have, what we need and what we get paid for. And I hate that this brutal reality that is over a decade old, has to interrupt and interfere with the pain, frustration and suffering that Navajo has had with this sudden fire — but it has.”

Ms. Perleberg says after every lost override and budget crisis SUSD has endured, she “can’t fathom” why now would be the time to ignore the giant elephant in the room.

“I would love to be able to give you an answer, I know the rest of this Governing Board would love to give you an answer. The truth is this community has been asking for a decade; why do our students suffer for the attachments to buildings we have?” she said.
“Again, I am so sorry.”

Governing Board member Sandy Kravetz a few minutes later picked up on the same topic. Pointing to a black binder that discusses the Granite Reef Corridor, she says it’s no secret south Scottsdale schools are over capacity.

“As President Perleberg not only alluded to, but said, we have got to have a discussion about what we’re going to do in the Granite Reef Corridor,” she said, pointing out that Yavapai Elementary School has available space.

“We do need to hash out what are some of our options? Can we put two programs under one roof? I know I discussed that with you before — it’s difficult, I don’t know if it’s impossible.”

This topic needs a bigger discussion, Ms. Kravetz said, acknowledging that the Navajo community wants an answer immediately.

Sandy Kravetz (photo by Josh Martinez)

“We need a holistic discussion. Our responsibility isn’t just to parents and students in the classrooms, but also taxpayers,” she said. “We tiptoe around it by picking a school and say ‘OK that’s off the (list) we rebuilt Hopi, rebuilt Pima, now Cherokee’s a contender.’ But again, we haven’t had a discussion about the Granite Reef Corridor and our over-capacity and under-enrollment.”

While two schools have been rebuilt, the “if we build it, they will come” prophecy hasn’t materialized, the Governing Board member said.

“I can’t say it enough: what are we building? Who are we building it for?” she said.
“How often will our taxpayers, or how happy will they be, when we go to them to ask them to rebuild schools and the enrollment numbers are 60 percent, 50 percent Scottsdale kids? What I’m saying is unpopular, and I know it, but those are some harsh realities we have to discuss.”

Governing Board member Pam Kirby reiterated what both women stated — 10 years ago she was fighting for Pueblo Elementary School — and said she agreed with Ms. Kravetz, a larger conversation is needed.

Meeting conclusion

Ultimately, the board decided to rebuild Cherokee Elementary School because of its overcrowding, and restore Navajo to its pre-fire condition with some safety and security improvements.

Cherokee Elementary School (photo courtesy of SUSD)

The other schools evaluated for a rebuild were: Kiva, Hohokam, Pueblo and Tavan.

Governing Board Vice President Kim Hartmann asked to discuss the options separately. Ms. Hartmann says she met with the principal recently and was impressed by his passion and plans for the school. She also noted that her school tax dollars go to Navajo because of how special she thinks the school is.

“There’s six schools up here and I think there’s an apple and orange comparison going on, because one of the six schools, Navajo, the conversation is about repair as oppose to rebuild,” she said.

“I do not see these as all things being equal. Navajo has a very unique set of circumstances. There was a fire. We have an option to repair it to its prior-fire existence for $10,000, which would be our deductible. I’ve never experienced a more articulate, thoughtful community of parents, of administrators, principal, who articulated very clearly what their desire is in the most respectful, inclusive manner possible.”

The STEAM program is in demand, Ms. Hartmann points out, and she wants to continue to improve the curriculum and fidelity of it.

Ms. Kirby also expressed that she believed doing nothing with Navajo would put the STEAM program at risk.

“I see it as, if we don’t do Navajo, we might lose a valuable program that feeds into a valuable high school program,” she said.

“I see it as an outlay of $10,000 to get us back to where we were while we work on Cherokee.”

The Governing Board voted 5-0 to rebuild Cherokee Elementary School, and voted 4-1 for the Navajo restoration.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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