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Senate passes bill to regulate public school property sales

Lockers in empty high school corridor

Five years ago Tucson Unified School District sold a no-longer-needed building to a developer for $1.6 million, $400,000 less than offered by a Christian school.

On Tuesday, state senators voted to block Tucson schools – and any other district – from doing that ever again.

The 17-12 party-line vote in the Republican-controlled Senate came over the objections of Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale. He said these decisions should be left to local school boards who can best determine the needs of the community.

But Quezada acknowledged that at least part of the reason he is opposed is because it effectively puts a school district in the position of helping a competitor for students and the dollars that come with them.

HB 2460 actually has its roots in the desire of the Desert Christian School in Tucson, which had been conducting classes at a local church, to find its own home. John O’Hair who was headmaster of the school in the 2008-2009 school year told lawmakers during a hearing earlier this year that he had his eye on some property at Wrightstown and Harrison roads on the city’s far east side.

As it turned out, he said, the Tucson district was selling off its no-longer-needed Wrightstown Elementary School, about a quarter mile up the road. O’Hair said it made more sense to buy that property and upgrade the school rather than build a new one from scratch.

O’Hair said he approached district officials with an offer of $2 million, only to be ignored for a year and a half.

“We had to get going,” he said, with the school going back to the original property.

What annoyed O’Hair is that a year later the district ended up selling off the 9.2 acre parcel — for $1.6 million for residential development.

“It was frustrating,” he told lawmakers.

The legislation which already has passed the House and now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey, would spell out that when a district offers a building or even part of a building for sale or lease, it cannot accept an offer from a potential buyer or tenant “that is less than an offer from a charter school or private school.”

Nothing in HB 2460 requires a school district to sell or rent to anyone. But the bill says that once a property is offered for sale a lease, the district cannot pull it off the market “solely because a charter school or private school is the highest bidder.”

Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, the sponsor of the legislation, was undeterred by the prospect that the former public school could end up in the hands of an organization that would, in effect, erect its own sign and seek to enroll some of the students in the neighborhood who otherwise would be going to public schools. He said it’s just the way the world works.

“You go to auto malls and you see every day the sign truck is there and taking down ‘Chevrolet’ and putting up ‘Ford,’ ” Leach said.

“That happens every day in the business world,” he continued. “You see every day an office building that’s got ‘Cigna’ on it and the next day it’s got ‘State Farm’ on it.”

And Leach said once a school district has declared a building vacant and no longer needed “you should sell it to the highest bidder.”

That mandate drew concerns from Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix. She said she has no concern if the sale to a specified buyer will be “good for kids.”

“We have to be fair,” she said. “We can’t just come in forcing the public school district to take something that may not be the best for kids.”

That drew a sharp reaction from Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.

“Districts can’t decide that,” she said.

“They can’t decide that that is not going to be good for kids because they’re afraid of the competition,” Allen said. She said the legislation is simply a requirement to allow charter and private schools to participate in the bidding “and not be excluded because of the prejudice against charter schools among the districts.”

Anyway, Allen said, the legislation does not require accepting a bid from a charter or private school if district officials have a legitimate reason.

“If you don’t want a high school there because you’ve got grade school kids close, and you don’t want to sell to them for that, that would be a reason,” she said, one that would remain legal even if HB 2460 becomes law.

And Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, who supports the legislation, said there is another escape clause of sorts in the legislation.

For example, he said, a district could decide to accept a lower bid from someone who plans to make the property into a community center. The only thing that HB 2460 would bar, Smith said, is refusing to sell solely because of the identity of the buyer.

Leach also reassured colleagues that nothing forces a district to sell a vacant building. He said they can hang on to them if they have reason to believe that a change in the neighborhood will result in a future need for the building as a school.

Tucson Unified School District took no position on the legislation during various hearings. Lobbyist John Kelly said the district was not interested in interceding as it has no plans to sell off other buildings.

In 2011, however, when several charter schools were sniffing around some closed TUSD properties, then-Superintendent John Pedicone said he did not like the idea of negotiating with them.

“When you consider selling to an organization that may be in competition with you, that requires careful consideration because you lose that asset, and sometimes a fast dollar may not be the best investment,” he said at the time. “We have to balance the value to the district and the value to the community.”

There was no immediate response from Gabriel Trujillo, the district’s current superintendent.

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