Education Secondary

The Paradise Valley Unified School District is learning the hard way about how state government works in Arizona.

The lesson school officials say they've learned:
If you're a multibillion-dollar foreign corporation looking to put a toxic-chemical-using plant in pristine desert, Arizona will bend over backward for you.

If you're a school district trying to build a new high school in that same undeveloped desert, you get treated far differently.

Two years after state and city officials went to extraordinary lengths--perhaps illegally so--to accommodate the rapid construction of Sumitomo Sitix's controversial silicon-wafer plant in northeast Phoenix, the school district has stepped into a bureaucratic quagmire in its attempt to build a new high school about two miles from the plant.

Both projects involve state land, land that by law is held in trust to benefit not silicon-wafer executives but Arizona's schoolchildren.

But just try telling that to Skip Brown, Paradise Valley's assistant superintendent of support services and planning.

"We're being treated very differently for the same kind of land. Nothing's changed up there. It's the same dirt, the same horny toads, the same cactus," he says in frustration. His experiences in recent months lead him to believe that state officials have forgotten their mission.

"State land is held in trust for, ironically enough, public education. I support that goal. [The land department should] take as much money from developers as it can. But we're not developers. We're like a utility, like a water line," he says.

Instead, Brown says, the land department has treated the school district as if it were a private, money-making venture.

A private entity, that is, without Sumitomo's political clout.
The district has received none of the speedy appraisals that benefited Sumitomo, nor the offer of free infrastructure improvements from the City of Phoenix. Neither has the school benefited from a willingness to alter site planning, which state and city officials were more than happy to extend to the wafer plant.

And taxpayers should take note: The district will pay much more for its parcel of land than the Japanese firm did. Sumitomo leased land valued at $37,000 per acre, which included all of the infrastructure that its water-sucking, power-eating plant will need.

Paradise Valley Unified School District, however, will end up paying more than $110,000 per acre for a similar plot of land.

Nearly three years ago, the district began planning for a new high school. Steady population growth, the result of continued building in the area, has overextended several of the district's schools. North Canyon High School is operating with portable classrooms and will exceed 3,000 students in two years. Paradise Valley High School and Horizon High School are filling up as well.

The district hoped to open a new facility for the 1999 school year. The logical place for a new school was north of the current institutions, which spread out east and west south of the Central Arizona Project canal. On the north side of the canal, the Desert Ridge development is gradually gobbling up raw desert owned by the state.

School-district administrators hired an architectural firm to identify several appropriate parcels of Desert Ridge land which could be converted to a new high school. Each site presented a different set of problems, Brown says.

Some would require extensive improvements to infrastructure--paving roads, building water lines and other basic needs--before they could be usable. Others were more convenient. Some sites, Brown says, the school district turned down. Others the land department refused to consider.

During negotiations, Brown says, it became increasingly clear that the land department had very specific plans for the land in Desert Ridge--plans which had been drawn up not by government officials but by private developers--and it seemed that the land department had more interest in following those plans than helping the school district. Attempts to reach Greg Novak, the state land department official overseeing the land sale, were unsuccessful.

Brown says the district was particularly interested in a parcel at Pinnacle Peak Road and Tatum Boulevard, but the land department said it didn't meet the area's master plan. Brown says he was astonished at that response. He asked for a copy of the plan, but state officials have not answered him. Those plans were drawn up by Northeast Phoenix Partners Inc., a private entity that has obtained first-refusal rights on any sales of state land within Desert Ridge.

When Sumitomo became interested in the Desert Ridge site in 1995, its wafer plant also didn't meet those previously drawn plans for the area.

The state didn't object when Phoenix officials changed those plans. Without, that is, telling nearby residents that it was Sumitomo the changes would benefit.

Local residents continue to fight the city in court over that stealth rezoning, despite the completion of the silicon plant. Residents complained not only that the city had illegally rushed through zoning changes to benefit the plant, but that the factory would threaten the environment. Recently, responding to charges by citizens and irregularities in Sitix paperwork, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley announced that he had begun an investigation of the plant to see if it was violating its county air-pollution permit.

In October 1996, the land department and the school district settled on a parcel for the new high school: where 36th Street and Deer Valley Road would meet if they were extended.

Then, Brown says, the district waited for the land department to complete appraisals of the land's worth. The appraisals took nearly a year.

Between the back-and-forth over which site to choose and the yearlong wait for appraisals, the school district has had to change its schedule. It now hopes to open the school in the year 2000.

That's a change from the treatment that Sumitomo received. The land department was more than willing to help out the company and its hurry to build the plant. Appraisals on Sumitomo's land were produced in less then a month. But Sumitomo didn't like the $63,000-per-acre price tag. Then-governor Fife Symington, however, assured Sumitomo officials that the appraisals were "flawed" and that a new set was being prepared.

The new appraisals were completed in three days and lowered the price of the land to $37,000 per acre.

"I wish you hadn't told me that," Brown says.
The land department had more in store for the district than plodding, bureaucratic inertia. It put a remarkable requirement on the high school land sale: Even though the district needs only 54 acres for its school, the state insists that it purchase 70 acres. The extra land includes a wash, which the state wants the district to improve with $700,000 in drainage improvements.

Brown believes the land department's requirement is heavy-handed. Worse, the district learned that the federal Clean Water Act required that the Army Corps of Engineers approve the improvement of the wash, which the corps wouldn't do.

The corps told the school district that building a drainage facility on the wash would actually cause more harm to the desert than trying to protect the school from an unlikely flood.

The land department, admitting in a letter that it had put the school in a Catch-22 situation, came up with another plan: It asked the district to pay for half of the wash improvement up front, then put the rest in escrow until the corps could be convinced that the facility should be built.

"We can't do that," Brown says, explaining that it's a perfect example of the land department treating the school district as if it were a private developer rather than a public agency.

"They want us to put the money in escrow. You do that with people you expect to leave town. We're a school district. We're not going anywhere."

Brown now is waiting for the land department to make a decision about the wash. But time is slipping away, putting even the year 2000 completion date in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, he tallies up the money taxpayers will pay for the school's land: The district will pay nearly $3 million for the 70-acre parcel, but it will only use 54 acres of the property. That's a per-acre price of $51,000.

But the district will have to pay much more to make the land usable. For a required right-of-way: $189,000. Extending three streets: $1.3 million. Extending a water main: $492,000. Building the drainage facility: $705,000. Bringing in electricity: $500,000.

Total infrastructure costs to the district: $3 million.
The school district will pay a total of $6 million for the high school site and its infrastructure--a per-acre price of $113,920.

Two miles away, Sumitomo's lease was based on an appraised value of $37,000 per acre.

Total infrastructure costs (estimated at $10 million) for the plant that Sumitomo will pay: zero.

"Those guys [Sumitomo] make money. We don't. The things that concern the district, we understand we have to pay for the land. But we feel we should be treated as an infrastructure agent rather than as a developer. I think this is just bureaucracy at its worst," Brown says.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega