The proposed project was a new, expanded campus for Magnet Traditional School, the brightest star in the Phoenix Elementary School District, a school whose students score better on national tests than their district counterparts, and better than most students in the state. The school was founded on the principles of basic instruction and parental involvement, and it was a committee of parents and teachers who spent a year coming up with the plan to build the campus on the northwest corner of Third Avenue and Roosevelt Street.
In recent months, however, opposition from a neighborhood group, the Roosevelt Action Association, has been formidable, if delayed ("Little Dread Schoolhouse," June 15). Roosevelt resident and former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard was among those who opposed construction of the school at that site, where the association wants residential development.
The association's campaign to keep the school off the Roosevelt site spooked the Phoenix Elementary school board, which feared being sued if it proceeded.
And so the board voted 3-2 on June 27 to keep the school at its current site, 2535 North 24th Avenue. The vote erased a year's worth of work on the part of the committee of Magnet Traditional parents and teachers assembled to direct the expansion project.
Board member Linelle Kersting, who made the motion, cited as her reason the costs of relocation, an expense not mentioned in a $29 million bond passed by district voters last spring to expand the 240-student school, which has a waiting list of about 200.
Kersting also wondered how in the world the parent-teacher committee had been given the authority to oversee such a project. This concern has also been expressed by board president Mary Carr, who was a member of the board that until late last year had unanimously approved the committee's recommendations.
"We have a bunch of uppity parents who now have a board that's gonna show you who's boss," said member Bill Scheel, who voted with the minority. Scheel noted that the board--before Kersting came aboard in January--did give the parent-teacher committee authority to investigate other, more centrally located sites for the school. Magnet Traditional draws its students from all over the 9,000-student district, but is sited in the district's northwest corner.
"What has totally been lost in all of the discussion, of course, is what's best for the kids," Scheel said. "We asked them [parents] for their advice, they gave it and now we're rejecting it."
The process began in January 1994, when the board authorized superintendent Pat Williams to form the parent-teacher committee to oversee construction of the new school. Along with principal Velia Juarez, the group decided to check out possible new sites as well, a suggestion backed by the board.
After evaluating a dozen sites, the group came up with its top three choices, with the Third Avenue and Roosevelt location the overwhelming favorite. Most of the property needed for the school could be purchased from Talley Industries for about half of what the company paid for it in the mid-1980s. Talley had bought the property hoping to be part of downtown revitalization championed by then-mayor Goddard, but found its commercial plans squashed by neighborhood opposition.
The school board approved the land purchase provided all interested parties were in favor. Nancy Welch, president of the Roosevelt Action Association, had been privy to the search process since June 1994, as were various city representatives. Approval was solicited easily--from the city council, from the planning department and from the Office of Historic Preservation.
But then, in March, around the time neighborhood opposition was growing (and lawsuits were being mentioned), new school board member Kersting raised concerns about the environmental condition of the site--something that might prompt just the type of lawsuit the board was worried about.
Following a motion by member John Carpenter, the board majority tabled the project until subsequent studies could be conducted.
A week later, 14 Roosevelt residents--including Goddard--paid or renewed their $2.50 annual membership fees in the Roosevelt Action Association and reversed the group's previous vote to support the school project. The school foes said the site should conform with the community plan for the area. That plan called for commercial or residential development--a notion that many see as a pipe dream, considering no one has wanted the land for ten years. Goddard and other neighborhood property owners believe that type of development is imminent.
Interestingly enough, last week's vote to keep the school at its current site--the parent-teacher committee's third choice--was conducted without final results of the environmental studies requested by the board. So far, the studies by Dames & Moore have found nothing out of the ordinary for such a central city site.
The board's only plans for the land now are to complete the cleanup of the low amounts of benzene that have been found in the soil, Kersting says. She adds: Who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, the economy might change or the neighborhood might just change its mind and give the okay to a new school.
Kersting's motion to keep the school where it is was accompanied by a proposal to form yet another committee, this one districtwide, to provide input into the school's reconstruction. The proposal was seen as hypocritical by Magnet Traditional parents who spent the greater part of last year on the committee that rated the Roosevelt site as its first choice and jumped through all the necessary hoops to get it.
"You guys vote the RAA (Roosevelt Action Association) way," RAA board member June Jorquez, who wanted the school in the neighborhood, told the school board. "If it's not right the first time, you vote again."
Kersting said the board's responsibility was to the voters who had passed last year's bond, an argument which might have seemed more valid had it been raised when the parent-teacher committee suggested looking for a new site. That would have been a year and a half ago, when both Mary Carr and John Carpenter were on the board.
"What happened to the site-based council?" Magnet parent Lucy Goodman asked the board. "Why did you let us go through all this process? Shame on you.