When residents of Gilbert’s Candlewood subdivision first bought their homes in the early 1990s, they were promised an elementary school in their neighborhood.
But that never happened, mainly because the property donated by a housing developer to the Gilbert Unified School District was deemed unsuitable for an elementary school.
“Back then, it was the first (parcel) donated to the school district, and they didn’t do their due diligence,” said Keith Vaughan, director of community development for the Gilbert district.
In fact, the school district had made the case against the site before neighbors would accept it wasn’t going to happen.
Officials explained how the parcel was divided nearly in half by a utility easement that also created two distinctly different elevations at the site. It also acted as a drainage basin for the three subdivisions that surround the lot and a municipal sewer line ran underneath the property that practically prohibited building a permanent structure on much of the site, Vaughan said.
Only about a third of the site was usable for buildings. And there were issues with whether the adjacent streets could handle the influx of school buses and parents dropping off or picking up their children, Vaughan said.
None of that has changed.
But now the neighboring First United Methodist Church of Gilbert, which bought the land about four years ago to accommodate future growth, wants to partner with Great Hearts Academies, a charter school organization that operates several college-prepartory schools in the Valley, including Chandler Preparatory Academy.
The deal would allow the charter school to build on the property in exchange for the church’s use of the facilities when school is not in session.
“Our primary goal was to find additional classroom and worship space for the church,” said Town Councilwoman Joan Krueger, who also attends the church and was a member of its evaluation committee. “It’s not our school; it is a way for the church to access classroom and worship space.”
The church has not filed anything with the town regarding the proposed school and nothing related to it is scheduled to go before the Town Council. Krueger said she intends to recuse herself from any council discussion or votes related to the project.
Ironically, some of the neighbors who pushed for the elementary school years ago are now standing against the charter school idea.
“If you completely ignore the neighborhoods around here, this would be a nice site for a school,” resident and Candlewood Homeowners Association vice president Peter Cole said while walking the site.
For years now, residents have enjoyed the site as a de facto neighborhood park with green grass and trees the neighbors planted along the street years ago. Many call it “the pit,” referring to its sunken elevation on half of the site.
“We fought for four years for Madera Parc Elementary,” said Candlewood HOA president Veronica Ross. “We learned the hard way we were duped by the developer.”
Now Ross fears the charter school’s students and parents will use her neighborhood streets as a shortcut and parking lot.
“They’re going to be doing air jumps off our speed bumps,” Ross said, referring to the school’s teenage students. “The impact on our lifestyle will be devastating.”
Great Hearts is looking to replace its Chandler Preparatory Academy currently in leased space at Warner Road and Arizona Avenue. If it moves to Gilbert, it will be known as Chandler-Gilbert Preparatory Academy and will accommodate about 400 students.
“It’s going to be like a small Brophy of the East Valley,” Greater Hearts CEO Dan Scoggin said, referring to Brophy College Preparatory, a Catholic school in Phoenix. “It’s a very rigorous, excelling program.”
While the church has been talking with Great Hearts for several months, there is no contract or actual agreement in place yet. If both sides can work out the basic relationship, Great Hearts officials anticipate opening in fall 2009 or January 2010, Scoggin said.
There are no designs or site plans, other than a rudimentary map showing that everything the school would need could fit on the parcel. It does not, however, address the sewer line, drainage or traffic issues.
It does show all of the school’s buildings on the site’s upper elevation with only athletic fields and an amphitheater on the lower section nearest the Candlewood subdivision.
But those fields are exactly what Ross says residents don’t want next to their neighborhood.
When the school district officials were trying to figure out what to do with the property years ago, she told them “we don’t want anything that will draw a crowd.”
Scoggin said the neighbors’ concerns are premature.
“They need to see what the plan is first,” he said. “Nothing has been shown to them, nothing has been brought forward to the (town) yet.”
Krueger said the school’s athletic fields are expected to be on the lower portion of the site and will not have lights.
“After use by the school and the church, (the fields) will be available to the neighborhood,” Krueger said. “So we see it as somewhat of an amenity that we’re bringing there.”