By New Times
By Connor Radnovich
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Ray Stern
By Keegan Hamilton
By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
Al Flores stood firm. In a December 11, 1996, letter to the school district's lawyer, he wrote, "Although the Farm may be an excellent program which probably increases the general quality of education within the District, the Farm does not advance the goals set forth in the Consent Decree and consequently cannot fairly continue to be funded with desegregation monies."
Still, on December 19, the school board voted to relocate the agribusiness program to Cesar Chavez High School, provided it could purchase 10 acres of land adjacent to the site, work out an Intergovernmental Agreement (or IGA) with the city to use some of its park land, and get approval from the court by April.
One member of the advisory board, David Iwanski of the Agri-Business Council of Arizona, a lobbying group for the agricultural industry, put his energies and some of his staffers to work and came up with a land swap.
A landowner named David Fretz was willing to trade 60 acres of vacant land directly across Baseline from the Farm for the school district's 38 acres, and then lease the Farm back to the district for a nominal fee. The school would then get the amount of land it needed, and the Farm could remain open.
Iwanski's staff then pushed legislation through the state government to allow the unimproved land to be traded for improved land.
But the deal fell through. The school district thought Fretz was getting the best of the bargain, and Fretz decided that he'd rather build houses on his land in the distant future rather than be saddled with a school building.
The ad hoc committee quickly set up another swap just down the road, this time with the help of the International Horse Foundation, a California-based group with representatives in Arizona. The foundation would set up a group of investors to purchase 55 acres of land which would be exchanged for the Farm, then leased back to the school district for one dollar a year. The investor group would be allowed to use the property for its own events and lease it out for other uses that would not interfere with school functions.
(The local foundation representative did not return calls.)
On March 20, the school board agreed to consider the proposal, but demanded that it be worked out in detail by April 17, a painfully short deadline. And the board also voted to cut desegregation funding for the equine portion of the magnet's curriculum.
"My response to that was that industry will find the money for that portion of the curriculum," says David Iwanski of the Agri-Business Council. Iwanski felt strongly that he could have come up with funding to keep the equine center open, if only there were enough time to pull off the land swap.
But the board wavered, worried that there really was not enough time to cut the particulars of the deal.
And Flores refused to yield, pointing out that if the architects were not allowed to draw up the final on-site plans for the school, it would never get built in time.
"I have extended the deadline twice," Flores says. "Hey, if you can have 60 acres, I'm all for it. I would love to have everything they want out there. But not at the expense of making it a small school. Not at the expense of these kids who have been trampled on over and over and over.
"They came back to me and said, 'What's one more year?'"
Then, to indicate how he responded, Flores extends his middle finger.
"No way. That's not going to happen."
As of this writing, the school district still had not worked out its IGA with the city over the additional land it needs for its full complement of athletic fields for the new school.
The Farm has been granted one more school year, and after that, the agribusiness component of the curriculum will be moved to the Carl Hayden campus. Three of its six teachers have already been fired. The equine component will be discontinued altogether.
Linda Proctor, who directs the program--and who refused to speak for attribution because she is an employee of the school district--has been granted a charter by the state department of education to start an agricultural charter school. She has entertained some offers to do so, but has not decided if or how she will do it.
In the interim, the Farm will be fenced off from the rest of the school construction site. Cesar Chavez will break ground as soon as possible. And if all goes according to plan, at the end of the next school year, the bulldozers will knock down the fence and head for the Farm.