Queen Creek may shut the doors this fall on students pouring into its high school from a neighboring school district, and their parents are frantic.
“I have no idea where my child is going to school next year,” said Janet Clark, parent of an eighth-grader at J.O. Combs Middle School. “They could have at least given us a year’s warning.”
The J.O. Combs Elementary School District sent a letter home to parents of its eighth-grade students this week stating that the “Queen Creek Unified School District is working on a plan” to determine how many Combs students to accept next fall.
A development and population explosion near the Pinal and Maricopa county lines has pushed classroom limits.
“Our problem is now, is that their growth, coupled with our growth at the high school in the last two years (has caused student enrollment) to grow 30 percent each year,” said Jeff Black, president of the Queen Creek district governing board. “That is uncontrollable. We are going to have to limit some of the enrollment coming from Combs.”
The plan is: All students at the high school who came from Combs, and their siblings, can remain at the high school. Also, the high school will accept students who attended the Combs district since at least sixth grade. A lottery system might be designed for other students.
Queen Creek officials have not said when the final decision will be made.
New families who have moved — or are moving — to the Combs district are left questioning where their children will attend high school and how they will be transported there — with some of the closest options 12 miles away.
Those families say the proposed method divides the community between “newcomers and outsiders.”
Carrie Younger-Howard, who moved to the Combs district six months ago, said she was in “shock and then in dismay” when she read that priority would be given to “students who have a long-term connection to the Queen Creek community.”
“I became furious,” she said. “The newcomers are being deliberately separated and divided and discriminated against,” she said.
By law, once the number of students from outside a district exceeds 350, the receiving district can start turning them away. About 500 Combs students attend Queen Creek’s high school, nearly a third of its 1,700 population.
Families said developers and school officials misled them up until a month ago by reassuring them that their children would attend Queen Creek High School — as has been the case for the past 50 years.
But students started bringing rumors home from school that caused parents to pick up the phone and start making calls.
“I feel extremely betrayed by builders, by school districts, by both of them involved,” Younger-Howard said.
Two of the closest high schools to Combs are in Apache Junction and Higley unified school districts. Apache Junction school officials say this fall’s new addition to its high school can accommodate Combs students for the next three to five years. Higley school officials say they won’t know until March how many out-of-district students they will be able to accept at their high school.
Officials from the Florence and Coolidge unified school districts — roughly 30 miles away — said the students could attend their schools and transportation might be provided.
For years, Combs has talked with the Arizona School Facilities Board, which funds school construction statewide, about reconsidering its rule that prevented Combs from receiving state money to build its first high school.
The board couldn’t fund high schools for districts that didn’t already have one prior to 2001.
However, the board voted in January to provide funding if the districts unify — or officially expand to teach grades nine through 12.
Combs will have to ask its voters to approve unification next fall. If voters approve, the high school could be open by fall 2009.
The Queen Creek district is facing high school hurdles of its own as it scrambles to secure enough land in its district to build its second high school and accommodate its own growth. So far, none of three land negotiations have materialized.
“We are behind the eight ball on that, as far as acquiring land,” Black said. “We are absolutely having a problem and that is part of our worry, too.”
Combs Superintendent Jan Langer said she has battled developers for years about misconceptions that Combs’ homes are also in the Queen Creek district.
“We are in an unincorporated area of Pinal County,” she said. “(We are) not easy to define. We have a Queen Creek mailing address which leads to assumptions. We have corrected that repeatedly with developers.”
Several developers in the area said they get their information from districts.
“Home buyers need to keep in contact with the school district and find out what is on the horizon for the changes” said Jacque Petroulakis, spokeswoman for Pulte Homes.