Site better suited for office complex, opponents say

By Jim Walsh

Gilbert resident Phil Alibrandi doesn’t believe that a charter school belongs on a prime piece of real estate near the Loop 202/Santan Freeway at Higley Road, a tract long envisioned as the future home of a major office complex.

Alibrandi and Town Council member Eddie Cook oppose a move to annex the property and build a large American Leadership Academy charter school near the freeway, saying the 42-acre parcel is vital to growth of Gilbert’s tax base and its evolution from a bedroom community into a well-rounded community.

“They claim to be good corporate partners but they are disregarding the master plan of the town. We are in Charter Valley here,” Alibrandi said, noting that Gilbert has 35 charter schools.

“It’s primarily a land-use issue. They are not listening to the will of the people. We need taxation to broaden the tax base.”

Several council members also mentioned at a December meeting they don’t believe that the site is a good match for the school. The hearing quickly turned into a debate about what some consider the saturation of charter schools in Gilbert at the expense of district schools, and others espousing competition that fosters quality education.

Gilbert’s master plan calls for offices to generate revenue and add jobs for a town long criticized for being too much of a bedroom community, Cook said.

Cook was the lone dissenter on a pre-annexation agreement, although some members said they voted for it to preserve their strategic options. It was to be discussed further at the Jan. 26 Town Council meeting.

Ralph Pew, American Leadership Academy’s zoning attorney, said the company is allowed by state law to build anywhere and is not governed by municipal government, but it would prefer to benefit from town services.

He said American Leadership Academy has made concessions that go beyond what is normally required, including construction of a northbound lane for through traffic on the east side of Higley Road, even though the school is planned for the west side of Higley at the freeway.

Pew said the school’s traffic flow has been carefully planned to move traffic onto school grounds off of Higley.

“This has been well planned, well thought out from a traffic-safety standpoint,” he told the town’s Planning and Zoning Board. “We are going to make it look even better.”

The board voted to recommend the annexation, 7-0, even though at least two board members expressed misgivings about the site’s proximity to the freeway and use as a school.

“It’s a land-use decision,” Pew said. “Cities are not enabled by the Legislature to deal with charter schools. The debate and discussion of charter schools is really a forum for the state Legislature.”

Gilbert has long been considered a hotbed for charter schools. Vice Mayor Jared Taylor is the business manager of Heritage Academy, a controversial charter school recently accused in a lawsuit of teaching religion in violation of the separation of church and state, a charge it has denied.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, is closely associated with charter schools in Arizona, having served as president and executive director of Benjamin Franklin Charter Schools.

The superintendents of the Gilbert and Higley Unified districts appeared at the Dec. 1 hearing to oppose the proposal and argue against another charter school.

“We are divvying the student enrollment pie over and over again,” said Christina Kishimoto, Gilbert’s superintendent, adding that charter schools have cost her district about $10 million in state revenue and forced consolidation of two schools.

“I am asking that you seriously consider the negative impacts to Gilbert Public Schools and Higley if another charter school is approved in our community,” she said.

Michael Fowler, director of facilities for Higley, noted that Higley has enjoyed a good working relationship with Gilbert until now.

“To hear three years later a charter school could build on a site we were discouraged from pursuing is extremely disappointing,” Fowler said.

Cook agrees with Pew that it is a land-use issue, but he reaches a far different conclusion.

“Having a district school or a charter school on it does not matter. Schools don’t generate revenue for the town of Gilbert,” Cook said. “My focus is to have Class A office space and to maximize the revenue.”

Cook noted the proximity of the site to Agritopia, Mercy Gilbert Medical Center and SanTan Village shopping mall, saying it is the next hot area in Gilbert. He said he hopes to convince three additional council members to vote against the annexation.

While Cook said he’s strongly pro-education and pro-competition, neither of these philosophies are factors in his vote against the proposed charter school.

“To me, it’s the wrong product on the wrong piece of property,” Cook said.