The Chandler Unified School District has approved spending $25 million for land to build a new high school, despite a public outcry from neighbors near the site about noise and traffic congestion.
The district is planning to build two new schools – one elementary and one secondary – in the southeastern part of Chandler in order to accommodate 3,000 students projected to enter the district over the next decade.
During a special meeting last Tuesday, the district’s Governing Board unanimously authorized CUSD to purchase 73.5 acres near Gilbert and Brooks Farm roads from LaPaglia Farms.
The district agreed to pay about $350,000 per acre – a negotiated price that administrators said was justified considering its location and lack of other available parcels within district boundaries.
“In terms of approximate spacing to our existing campuses and the lack of truly viable land alternatives, we believe our negotiated price of $350,000 per acre is justifiable,” Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said.
Associate Superintendent Frank Fletcher also told residents that the district isn’t buying the land without a detailed examination for any problems.
“We make sure that there’s nothing on the site that will prohibit us from purchasing,” he said. “If any of that shows up within the 60-to-90-day due diligence period, we walk away from the contract at our earnest money is returned.”
But some community members felt the district was putting the cart before the horse by investing a large amount of funds in a project that’s still in the preliminary stages.
“You’re paying top dollar for something that you have not planned for,” Brian Lee, a Chandler resident, told the school board.
Several questions were asked about open enrollment, the district’s boundaries and whether a new high school is really necessary.
The main point emphasized by administrators is that CUSD needs another high school or class sizes will increase.
“That has not been our goal,” said Berry. “Our goal has been to keep our teacher ratios low.”
Berry told the board that CUSD is projecting to add about 300 secondary students annually for the next six years.
But lower birth rates are expected to shrink the district’s elementary enrollment in the near future, she added.
This past year, the Arizona School Facilities Board appropriated funds for a new high school in Chandler that would serve up to 800 students.
The district could be eligible for additional funds from the state board, Berry added, which would offset what the district might have to spend with bond money.
The project’s funding won’t be contingent upon a $290 million bond issue that will go before voters in November, according to district spokesman Terry Locke.
A breakdown of how the bond money would be spent shows some funds have been reserved for building the new high school.
No documents detailing the recent land deal were available to review as of Wednesday.
Locke said CUSD had few options for finding enough land around Chandler that could fit a new high school – two sites were selected and only one owner was interested in selling, he said.
But several residents were not pleased with the site’s location, calling it downright “awful” due to the traffic and noise a new high school would generate along Gilbert Road.
Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, someone attempted to drum up opposition to the project by mailing out a letter expressing their disapproval of constructing a noisy high school.
“Not only will this bring more traffic into the area,” the unsigned letter reads, “we will also experience bright lights at night (football and baseball games) and loud noises in the morning (marching band practice).”
CUSD Superintendent Camille Casteel said she never thought the district would have to build another high school, yet space is running out as the existing high schools have already added several classrooms in recent years.
“We tried to hold off,” the superintendent said. “We think this is the only real viable alternative.”
Even though enrollment at some elementary schools is starting to level off, the district is planning to build another K-8 campus in the next couple years on 13 acres near Ocotillo Road and 148th Street.
The new school would service students attending Weinberg Elementary and the old facility could be re-purposed into a campus for gifted students.
Earlier this year, the school board approved spending $817,000 in engineering services for building the new elementary school, which would not be completed until at least July 2020. The new high school will likely not open until July 2021.
No formal construction contracts have been brought before the board for consideration and a chunk of bond funds have been reserved for building the new elementary school.
District officials will be meeting with the city of Chandler in the coming weeks to begin assessing the 73-acre high school site for traffic and environmental studies.