Alexander: Desert Discovery Center effort undermines idea of stewardship

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, Inc has a plan to appropriate the $100 million Preserve Fund surplus, and their plan includes a promise to educate Scottsdale’s “next generation of conservationists what it means to live sustainably in the desert.”

Jason Alexander

That is a very tall order for DDCS Executive Director Sam Campana and her stable of six-figure consultants, because they are neither scientists nor educators.

Our grassroots community group — NoDDC — began investigating DDCS, Inc.’s education plan through a public records request to the Scottsdale Unified School District. We reviewed hundreds of pages of records, which are available on our website,, and our Facebook page “NoDDCAZ.” Our research shows that DDCS, Inc. has no meaningful education plan. It has been completely manufactured over the past six weeks.

When we spoke with Michelle Marshall, general counsel for SUSD, she said that SUSD’s position “is simply to provide optional resources for our students and teachers to support the Arizona State Standards.” Ms. Marshall did not commit to any further engagement with DDCS, Inc. Public records confirmed there was no significant relationship whatsoever.

DDCS, Inc. began outreach to SUSD last fall, and in December 2016, Sam Campana tried to drum-up teacher interest. She wrote to SUSD staff asking if a visit to “one of the resorts would be interesting to a cadre of educators.” Campana: “Does there happen to an ‘in service’ day we could tag along with and perhaps be the ‘happy hour’ at the end?” DDCS, Inc. held its first workshop for teachers at the beginning of February. Five teachers came, and one was opposed to the project.

In mid-March, Campana bought an off-the-shelf curriculum from a professional curriculum consultant. DDCS, Inc. also started to promote another workshop for teachers, and offered educators $500 each to attend and implement their curriculum. Response was minimal, so Campana “sweetened the deal” — she offered free bus rides and all-expense paid field trips to the Gateway for school classes. Five teachers signed up, out of the nearly 1,400 in SUSD.

On March 31, Campana acknowledged doubts about the workshop’s success to her team of consultants. She suggested they extend her $500 all-expense-paid incentive to teachers at Scottsdale charter schools and Paradise Valley unified schools that are located in Scottsdale. Campana also asked to pay consulting fees to two supporters in SUSD and at Scottsdale Community College.

In summary, the people this community trusts the most with our children’s education — our teachers — reject DDCS, Inc.’s foray into education by a margin of 1,395 to 5. This failed attempt to sway educators with a bolt-on education plan for a tourist attraction demonstrates yet again that there is almost no holistic, community-driven interest in the DDC project. Perhaps next month Campana and her team of consultants will tell us the DDC is for the dolphins, or whatever spin their $125-an-hour marketing team thinks of next.

Sadly and surprisingly absent from the discussions with SUSD were stakeholders from the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy. For years, the MSC has been an award-winning leader in education, research and conservation efforts in the Preserve. The MSC has 600-plus volunteer Stewards who donate thousands of hours of their time each year to promote and implement these goals. The MSC’s website features an extensive list of nearly daily activities for every age group, ability level, and interest, ranging from botany to herpetology to mountain biking.

It also runs a very successful citizen scientist program. The MSC is funded mainly by donations and their volunteers’ efforts are valued in excess of $1 million annually.

For their tremendous service to our community, the MSC’s annual cost to Scottsdale is practically nothing — they receive no direct funding. Compare this to DDCS, Inc., with their study budget alone of $1.7 million of our taxes. In contrast to the special interest driven DDC, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is a truly unique and holistic, community-driven organization that has grown organically in our community, and matches perfectly with the special nature of the Preserve that “we the people” voted to purchase and create.

So why are a group of consultants getting paid obscene salaries trying to duplicate what the MSC has done so well, for so long, with so much grass roots, community support?

Why was the MSC not included in Campana’s educational program? Perhaps because the Desert Discovery Center would be a direct competitor with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and their educational, research and public outreach activities at the Preserve.

We all want to celebrate the Preserve and educate our residents and visitors about how special it is. But the Conservancy and its stewards are a huge part of what makes the Preserve so unique, what we might say, “So Scottsdale.” So how does the DDCS, Inc. justify side-stepping the efforts and experience of 600-plus volunteer stewards and citizen scientists? What will become of the MSC if the DDC is constructed in our Preserve?

It should be as clear to all Scottsdale citizens as it is to us that the Desert Discovery Center is such a contradiction of our community’s notion of what our Preserve is and what our Preserve taxes are intended for, that it must go to a public vote of the citizens.

Editor’s note: Mr. Alexander is a Scottsdale resident and founder of the NoDDC citizen group

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