Oct. 13, 2004 - Population growth throughout Pima County has increased enrollment in the area's schools and put a strain on available resources. Meanwhile, state budget limitations have kept municipalities from providing necessary infrastructure to support newly built schools, a Marana official said at a recent council meeting.

This is especially a concern in Marana, where subdivisions popping up throughout the town have pushed many of the area's schools closer to capacity.

In an effort to address this concern, the Marana town council voted unanimously at its Oct. 4 meeting to support the Metropolitan Education Commission's formation of an ad-hoc committee that seeks to streamline procedures and ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place to support new school sites.

The newly created committee consists of representatives from local municipalities, including the City of Tucson, Pima County, Oro Valley and Marana, and Pima County school districts, said Bob Thomas, Marana Unified School District director of operations. It has been meeting for the last two months.

"What they're doing is opening up the dialogue of how municipalities can work with school districts to plan for future growth," Thomas said.

MUSD Governing Board President Janice Mitich said she was unaware of the committee's existence.

The school district and Marana already have a good working relationship, Thomas said. For example, Marana has reached an agreement with the town's developers to contribute voluntary mitigation fees to MUSD or reserve land within the development for future school sites.

Executive Assistant to the Town Manager for Special Projects Jim DeGrood represents Marana on the ad-hoc committee. At the Oct. 4 meeting, he said when he told the other municipalities and districts about the town's ability to elicit a fee from developers that goes to area schools, they reacted in disbelief.

"The various developers in this community are providing for the schools," DeGrood told the town council. "Presently we have over 5,500 lots that establish voluntary contributions of at least $1,200 per unit or the equivalent land."

The town's ability to work with developers has already yielded results for MUSD. The Gladden Farms development originally included two 10-acre school sites, but that requirement was changed at the July 20 council meeting. In lieu of the second school site, the developer agreed to give the district $900 per home in phases two through four of the project, resulting in a contribution of more than $1 million.

In another development, Cottonwood Properties agreed to contribute $1,200 per home to the district in a 400 home development south of Moore Road and west of Thornydale.

DeGrood said developers are willing to contribute money to local school districts because it makes their property more attractive to potential buyers.

While Marana has already been cooperating with its school district, MUSD will benefit from the ad-hoc committee because the town's limits do not match the district's boundaries. Only five of MUSD's 17 schools lie within Marana, Thomas said. The committee will ease the communication between the district and Pima County, which benefits Marana's schools that lie in unincorporated areas.

At the meeting DeGrood said the committee's goal is to prevent situations like the one that emerged in Tombstone, when a school was built without an access road. This happened because the state encourages districts to buy land with low property values that are, at times, remote from nearby infrastructure.

While Marana and MUSD have prepared the district for growth, DeGrood said Marana has not been exempt from these problems. He pointed out the example of Marana High School, where the construction of the school led to increased traffic on a two-lane highway. The town then needed to examine safety concerns, such as integrating bike lanes and bus stops into the flow of traffic.

Even so, DeGrood and Thomas agreed that Marana and MUSD have taken steps to address future growth. At the meeting, DeGrood told the council the committee will allow the town to share its ideas with other municipalities. In this way, the committee will contribute to a "level playing field" among the area's school districts.

In other action, the council approved an amendment to the San Lucas Development agreement between Marana and BCIF Group LLC. While the original agreement accounted for contributions to public improvement required to support the project, the Arizona Department of Transportation raised concerns about the project's affect on the Marana Interchange when it was reviewed.

The amendment, which responds to ADOT's concerns, requires the developer to widen the westbound Interstate 10 off-ramp to two lanes, re-stripe the Marana Interchange underpass, and voluntarily contribute $700 per new home for future interchange improvements.

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