A recent decision by the Arizona School Facilities Board (SFB) has brought a planned Somerton High School in the Yuma Union High School District to a standstill.
“This is…a result of a disappointing change of events,” said Superintendent Gina Thompson.
At Wednesday’s YUHSD governing board meeting, Thompson relayed that the SFB determined the district is not eligible for the necessary funding to break ground on the school – a decision that, Thompson said, is very much a “mystery.”
On Sept. 4, YUHSD was given a “favorable vote” by the SFB indicating the district would be eligible for state funding for construction on Somerton High School to begin in Fiscal Year 2020, allowing the school to open in Fiscal Year 2022. Further supporting the district’s eligibility for funding was the SFB’s projection that without the new high school, the district would be over capacity by 2022.
In December, however, Thompson received notice from the SFB via email stating that the recommendation for Somerton High School to be conceptually approved for 2022 as previously planned was changed to 2023.
New data examined by the SFB, sent to Thompson and presented at the Board’s Dec. 11 meeting stated that YUHSD only experienced a 1% increase in its five-year annualized growth rate; “barring unforeseen circumstances,” the SFB projected the district’s growth rate “norm” to range between 0.5% and 2.5% for the next four years.
“The new analysis sent to us (said) that we would not be eligible this round when they submitted their documentation to the legislators and the governor for funding,” Thompson said.
According to Thompson, it’s unclear in the SFB’s analysis whether YUHSD is 81 students over capacity or 34 students under capacity. She also pointed out that while Chandler Unified School District fell 50 students shy of its maximum capacity, the district was approved by the SFB for funding to construct a new high school.
“I was told (Chandler) is very unique in the state of Arizona,” Thompson said. “My challenge is, find me somewhere more unique than Yuma, Arizona, who also has the bonding passed by our voters to support public education.”
While a 2015 bond allocated $20 million in funding, Somerton High School is reliant on state funding for full completion.
“It’s a very difficult process to understand,” Thompson said. “In 2015, the $20 million that was approved by voters for getting Somerton High School started was also with the understanding that we would need SFB support, and at this time they will not commit. That is why I’ve worked so hard with my team (and) Somerton has worked so hard…to continue to bring facts to SFB.”
Thompson addressed these concerns during the call to the public at the SFB’s January board meeting Wednesday morning at the Arizona State Capitol and it was requested by SFB Chairman Sean McCarthy that the topic appear as an information item on the SFB’s Feb. 5 board meeting agenda
“I’ve asked questions and I’m not receiving answers, and I’m a little tired of being patted on the head and told, ‘I’ll see you next month, if you’re on the agenda,’” Thompson said. “I would like to say that I have hope that there is an appeal process, but I’ve asked what the appeal process is and I was told that we would be submitted again December 15th of 2020 for potential funding in 2021, which would push the opening of Somerton High School to 2023 if the Board found it in our favor at that time.”
According to Somerton City Manager Ian McGaughey, Somerton is a “fast-growing city” and anticipates hitting 20,000 residents in the upcoming census; that, paired with the city’s construction of two new elementary schools, serves as further identification of Somerton’s need for a high school.
“By all accounts, we’re the biggest city in the state without a high school,” McGaughey said. “You know all the stats about 1,200 students being bused every day to Yuma from Somerton and the impact that has on their lives, their scholastic career and their ability to participate in after-school events. The bottom line is that the city is committed to working with (YUHSD) to see that this project is a success for everyone involved, especially the young people of Somerton, which is what this is really all about.”
According to Thompson, Rep. Tim Dunn, Rep. Joanne Osborne and Sen. Sine Kerr have been “very active in reaching out” to the district to offer support and receive updates on the moving parts of the project.
Thompson said her next step is to make an appeal to Gov. Doug Ducey, which the SFB website lists as an option.
“I’m very frustrated, I’m disappointed, but I continue to champion for the students of Yuma County because this is the right work and Somerton, Arizona, needs their high school,” Thompson said. “So we will continue the work, but it’s important to me to personally and publicly state to the city officials of Somerton (that) we have never been sitting on our laurels – we have always been moving forward and we continue to champion this high school and we continue to keep our team moving forward where it is fiscally responsible.”
In the meantime, YUHSD chief communications officer Eric Patten said it “definitely wouldn’t hurt” for families to contact their local legislators, particularly Dunn, Osborne and Kerr.
A public update will be provided at YUHSD’s February governing board meeting scheduled for 5:15 p.m. Feb. 5 in the San Luis High School auditorium.