Schoolhouse Shock

School district officials and consultants have a warning for the young families buying up houses in the new developments ringing the Valley: Don't expect a neighborhood school for your kids.

Double sessions, packed classrooms and long bus rides will be a reality in the not-so-distant future if laws for finding and buying school sites don't change, they say.

The long-term impact of policies regarding new school construction is one of many important issues almost off the radar of the Arizona Legislature this year, as lawmakers struggle with an immediate budget crisis.

State schools chief Tom Horne has proposed dismantling the School Facilities Board, but both Democrats and Republicans say that idea will go nowhere.

Even those with the most dire of concerns hesitate to complain. They don't want to jeopardize the funding they already have by demanding more money or pushing for changes in state law that would force developers to provide land for schools.

Under current law, the Arizona School Facilities Board, created in 1998 after years of legal battles over school funding, pays for new schools and capital improvements. In the past, school districts that wanted to build new schools asked taxpayers to pass bonds. The courts said that was inequitable, and lawmakers created the board to control school capital projects.

Ed Boot, acting director of the School Facilities Board, insists there's no problem at all. Two weeks ago, the board received $402 million in funding. Currently, they are working on schools that will open in 2006.

"Every school that has been asked for that qualifies under our program, as of today, [has been approved]," Boot says.

But school officials say exploding growth is already creating a demand for new schools greater than they can keep up with. Until now, schools have been lucky for the most part enough developers have been willing to provide land for schools.

The donations of land and money are strictly voluntary; there is no provision in Arizona law that requires a developer to donate a school site, although there is a requirement that a developer set aside land for a school with an option for the district to buy it.

The idea has worked well, in many cases. Boot says that since 1999, 40 parcels of land worth more than $78 million have been donated by developers and other landowners. The contributor gets a 30 percent tax credit, and homebuilders get to sell homes near schools. (Although that's not as big a plus as one might think, since all a developer has to do to entice buyers is mark off a reserved school site on a development plan a site that could just as easily end up holding more homes, rather than a school.)

But when the idea doesn't work, there can be disaster, as Tom Murphy has learned. Murphy is executive director of planning and support for the Dysart Unified School District, which includes parts of west Phoenix, Surprise and El Mirage.

Dysart is one of the fastest-growing districts in the state. This year, the district opened its seventh elementary school. In 2008, the 20th is slated for completion.

Murphy is quick to point out that the School Facilities Board has been good to Dysart. The board has approved two high school sites at up to 60 acres, a high school site is much harder to acquire from a developer than a 15-acre elementary school site and has been able to get other sites donated by developers.

"It's hard for us to cross the School Facilities Board because they would like to rule with authority, and if we disagree, we have to make a lot of mea culpas," Murphy says. But he adds that while he's had no complaints up to now, his district is on a "collision course."

Dysart has no extra money to supplement land purchases. Right now, almost all of the district's capital goes into portable classrooms.

Some developers are more friendly than others. Murphy and Dysart are currently in a battle with Scottsdale-based Stardust Development, over putting a school in a community called Rancho Gabriela. Land was reserved for an elementary school site, but now the developer wants $1.8 million for the 15 acres.

Murphy is incredulous. "It's not Beverly Hills and it's not Manhattan. It's Surprise, Arizona, where land is going for about $35,000 an acre," he says.

"It's kind of a cute little game," Murphy continues. "Yeah, I'm going to make [the land] available to them for a price I know they can't afford to pay, so they'll have to walk. That's not the intent of a reservation."

Dysart is considering taking Stardust to court. But the district had better act fast. The development is slated for completion in 2004, Murphy says.

Yes, Dysart could ask the School Facilities Board to purchase the land for the school, but the board expects to get the land donated or discounted to 50 percent of the market value, Murphy says.

Stardust did not return a call for comment.

Tim O'Malley, of The O'Malley Group, consults with rural school districts. He says such situations are not uncommon, and believes the law needs to change to force developers to donate land or money.

"Fiscally, I understand what they're doing. They're there to make as much money as they can," O'Malley says, adding, "I think that developers need to realize the impact they have on the communities where they develop."

O'Malley laughs, recalling that he's met with developers who insist they don't need to donate land for school sites because they're not selling homes to people with children even when they're selling five-bedroom homes in south Phoenix.

Tom Murphy, O'Malley and others think the law needs to change. Growing Smarter, the growth-management package passed by voters in 2000, requires developers to put aside 10 percent of land for open space, Murphy observes. Why not require developers to put aside land for schools?

"I think a law ought to be passed," O'Malley says. "What I really think is the schools should form an extremely strong coalition and somehow get the cities to buy into it."

But O'Malley admits that's highly unlikely. That coalition would be up against one of the strongest in the state. Connie Wilhelm, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, says there's no way a law will ever be passed that forces developers to donate land for schools.

"We certainly as an industry encourage school site donations when it is in that particular landowner's best interest. . . . But in no way, shape or form do we believe that the Constitution or the courts have ruled that it is the responsibility of new homebuilders to build new schools. We would oppose any mandatory fee or donation of land."

New home buyers aren't the only people using schools, Wilhelm says. What about rentals, resales and apartments?

"If we're really going to talk about a fee on a per-head basis, then I think you've got to look at what the real impact is."

She adds, "The schools shouldn't be talking about this anyway. They are no longer responsible for school sites. It is always at the School Facilities Board."

In practice, that's just not true, says Tom Murphy, who spends his time trying to secure school sites, and fighting for donations and funding.

"School districts need to be able to assert their right just to be, to exist," he says. "I really think growth ought to pay for growth."

Rick DeGraw, who worked as a consultant for many bond elections in the past and knows the school capital funding scene well, agrees there is a crisis looming.

"I think it is one of those sleepers that isn't sexy enough for anyone to look at this far out," he says, "but eventually it will come around to bite."