The Higley Unified School District governing board approved a plan this week to move forward with two middle schools next school year by leasing property.
With a 5-0 vote, the district will enter into an agreement with James Megellas Foundation, an educational nonprofit group that will sell bonds to pay for Educational Services Development Group to construct and furnish the buildings. The district will then enter a 40-year lease for the buildings and furniture, using money from the district’s general fund.
Voters last week approved a measure to allow the district to enter into a long-term lease agreement, making this plan possible without using additional tax dollars.
Cooley Middle School will be built at Elona Ranch near Recker Road and Loop 202. The other school, which has not been named, will be located at Sossaman Estates near Power and Queen Creek roads. The district already started using its adjacent ways funds to hook the two sites to the city’s sewer system and start other infrastructure on the two sites.
The district currently operates kindergarten through eighth-grade elementary campuses, the only district in the East Valley to run that way.
The middle schools will house seventh and eighth grades and will allow students to have more class options and create a smoother transition into high school, district spokeswoman Emily Gersema said.
The Higley district, which is primarily located in southeast Gilbert, expects to grow by about 500 students a year for the next few years. The two middle schools will house just less than 900 students each.
The district put a budget override renewal and a capital override on the Nov. 6 ballot as well, but at last count both measures were failing.
“Without the capital override increase, we couldn’t afford to furnish the schools. The state isn’t giving capital funds. That put us in a position of negotiating with the nonprofit that will be selling the bonds for a fully furnished, facility lease agreement,” she said.
The original plan was for the Higley district to sign a 35-year lease, but the new agreement will be a 40-year lease so the district can rent desks, chairs and other furniture and equipment for the school, she said.
A handful of parents attended Tuesday’s meeting in support of the plan, she said.
School districts in Arizona are funded on a per-student basis. School construction was taken over by the state in the late 1990s after a court ruled the method of funding school buildings through bonds creates inequity. But because of the down economy, the School Facilities Board has not funded school construction – or building maintenance funds – for several years, and several school districts have turned back to bond funding.
Higley voters approved the sale of bonds prior to the recession in order to build new schools, but bond limits are set by a district’s assessed valuation. And because property values have sunk, the district found itself in a position of being unable to qualify for bonds already approved by voters.
This will be the first time a public school district in Arizona goes about opening a new school in a building under a long-term lease, Higley officials said. They believe it could open a new way for growing districts to get the buildings they need.
The public can learn more about the plans for the middle schools, including the proposed feeder-school patterns, during a public forum 6 p.m. Monday at the district office, 2935 S. Recker Road.
The Higley governing board is expected to vote on the recommended feeder-school patterns during the Nov. 27 meeting.