August 2, 2006 - The community of Oracle may have a high school by 2010 if some school leaders have their way.

Citing an anticipated housing boom in south Pinal County, school officials are laying the groundwork to sell the community and the state on building a high school.

Oracle District Superintendent John Clark said a new high school is necessary to meet the needs of the area as it grows.

Clark also said that by switching from an elementary district to a "unified" one - the classification required to have a high school - the district will not have to worry about the state forcing Oracle to unify with another district. That's an important issue to a community that shot down a heated consolidation threat two years ago to stay independent.

But Clark's biggest selling point: Oracle won't have to pay.

The School Facilities Board, a state organization that pays for the construction of new schools, will pick up the tab as long as Oracle can present a good case.

Clark's plan doesn't come without opposition.

Some community members say it's just too soon to build a high school, and maintain that voters will not support the costs needed to sustain it and give it the amenities that students can get at nearby schools.

Oracle is an elementary district, teaching only kindergarten through eighth grades. The district buses about 20 of its high school students to San Manuel High School, a small school about 13 miles away. The rest of the students, about 200, opt to ride the 25 miles one way to Canyon Del Oro High School in Oro Valley, a much bigger school with more curriculum and athletic offerings.

To start the unification process, the Oracle school board, with Clark's encouragement, organized a committee in November to explore the advantages and disadvantages of a high school.

Nanette Soule, Oracle school district employee and the high school committee chairperson, said the committee has met about eight times since forming, and spent most meetings editing a brochure that the committee will send to the community about a high school.

The brochure, which Soule said is near completion, says that to form a unified district the school must have at least 200 high school students and be worth $2 million. The school meets both those requirements.

The brochure also touts the committee's support of the high school and lists dozens of benefits and opportunities for students.

Some opportunities listed include smaller class size, more students participating in sports and arts and fewer safety concerns because of shorter bus routes.

There are no disadvantages listed in the brochure.

Soule said the goal of the committee was to look at the issue and then make a recommendation to the school's governing board. Soule said she is ready to recommend that Oracle unify and build a high school.

But some committee members disagree.

After July's meeting, which was cancelled after too few members showed up, committee member John Doran furiously discussed the meeting's would-be agenda with Soule.

Doran told Soule when he got the agenda he was irate. He said the committee didn't agree "to recommend to form a unified district to include a high school," as the agenda said it would.

In a phone interview, Doran said that in previous meetings the committee agreed that there are not enough students to warrant a high school.

"We discussed in other meetings that we would come back to it," he said. "We were going to recommend that the numbers aren't there for a high school. But that's not what the agenda said."

Doran said the committee doesn't finish discussions at meetings, yet they're never brought up again at the next meeting.

"There's only 200 and some kids. We only graduated 31 kids from the eighth grade," he said. "You're gonna have 31 kids in a ninth grade class?"

Doran said that when the district has 300 to 350 students, then it's time to build a high school.

Alex Gort, committee member and parent of a high school student, also said he thinks recommending a high school now is premature.

Gort wrote an e-mail in June to the Oracle governing board secretary, saying he did not think the committee had completed its goals, and he didn't "understand the rush to put this on the ballot."

"I believe that this committee has done a poor job of following the Board Approved Advisory Committee General Work Plan Guildlines and has ignored several of the tasks that the board has assigned it to do," Gort wrote.

He wrote that the committee has failed to survey parents and students, and discuss curriculum, personnel, transportation and financing and extracurricular activities. He also said it hasn't discussed general ramifications and alternatives.

The brochure says that the district will not raise property taxes to build the high school. Instead, the Schools Facilities Board, a state organization, will bear the cost.

Donna Wildey, a school facility specialist for the board in Phoneix, said before the facilities board will consider building a new high school, a district must submit a capital plan outlining its need.

For rural districts, the state will cover the construction cost of a high school if the community has at least 100 students who travel at least 45 miles, or 60 minutes, one way to get to school.

If Oracle can meet the requirements, Wildey said, it must find a site, find a developer and plan the school.

And though the facilities board covers most of the costs, Wildey said she doesn't think a district could build a school without passing some sort of tax increase.

Because of so much development in the state, the board is strapped for cash to build new schools, she said. So schools end up getting fewer amenities.

"It's really uncomfortable for us, having to say no carpet," Wildey said. "We've had to really slash some really nice amenities for the schools."

Wildey said she has worked with schools that pass specific bond issues to pay for things like auditoriums or increased technology in classrooms.

Clark said he knows that there are some things, like outside lighting, that the facilities board won't pay for. But he said he could look to other sources to cover those costs. Clark said he is confident that he can work with the facilities board to make it work.

"It's not a Taj Mahal," Clark said. "But even if we took the minimal standards, it would be better than any classroom that we have in Oracle."

In April, a state commission on school redistricting will hand out reports to school districts across the state that it thinks need to change.

The commission's legislative liaison, Art Harding, said the commission is looking at all non-unified schools and determining whether it thinks unification should go to the voters. He said it usually means bringing together an elementary district with a high school district.

It is not the same as consolidation, Harding said, which usually means combining two districts into one.

"Basically, your saying, 'I have a K through sixth, and they have a seventh through 12, let's bring them together," Harding said.

Harding said the goal is not just to cut costs by having smaller district administrators, but also to create consistent curriculum from kindergarten through 12 grades. Harding said he can't predict whether Oracle will be recommended for unification.

Clark said he has every indication that Oracle will be one of them, which is precisely why Oracle should unify itself and remain autonomous.

Clark said the housing boom in southern Pinal County will bring so many students to the Oracle district that busing that many students out will be too cumbersome.

Although the actual numbers are still to be determined, Pinal County has approved zoning and is working with at least three different developers to build more than 20,000 homes in the next decade, with another 20,000 in the pipeline. Most will be in the Oracle school district, but not all will be single-family homes. SaddleBrooke Ranch will be another age-restricted community by Robson Communities.

But Clark said even age-restricted developments will have an effect on the area even though the families won't have school-aged children.

"What it does for Oracle is create jobs in construction, landscaping and services," Clark said. "That anchors our families that are here now and offers new employment that will bring families in. It has a huge affect."

Clark said he's not trying to rush this. He said he wants voters to decide on unification in November 2008, and then hopes a school could open by 2010.

High school committee members said students already enrolled in other high schools would be able to graduate at their respective schools. The school would open with a ninth grade class.

By 2010, Clark said he expects the numbers of students somewhere between 250 and 450 students, putting the school in the 2A division, the same as high schools in Tombstone and San Manuel.

For now, Clark said he hopes the brochure will "start the dialogue." Then the district will conduct a survey, he said.

Clark said the district has to start this process now to see that it goes smoothly in the next four years.

"To me, it's foresight," he said.

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