July 19, 2006 - The Marana school district governing board last week shot down a deal with a developer that would put a school site in a proposed development in Avra Valley.

Cortessa LLC, an affiliate of Scottsdale-based Stardust Development Inc., proposed to reserve 10 acres for a school in its planned 1,800-home development in unincorporated Pima County.

The developer drew up an agreement with Marana Unified School District Maintenance Director Bob Thomas. The contract stated that the developer would save impact fees from each house and put the money in an escrow fund. The district could then use that money to buy the land from the developer and build the school.

School board members thought the agreement sounded shady.

"If they want to donate land for schools, then donate it and get on with it," board member Dan Post said.

Cortessa proposed putting the school in between Anway and Trico roads at the southwest corner of the planned Arboles Viejos subdivision, less than a mile from the existing Roadrunner Elementary School.

Historically, the district will not build a school within a mile of another. The proposed school site sets about an eighth of a mile from Roadrunner, located at 16651 W. Calle Carmela.

Appraisers have yet to visit the 10-acre school site to determine its worth.

"Land costs will change," board member Bill Kuhn said. "There's a good chance the rooftop fees won't cover the cost of this. I don't like this document at all."

Rooftop fees would probably generate about $2 million, Thomas said. However, the district would pay for the life of the escrow account.

Board member Albert Siqueiros wondered how much that would cost.

"I don't know," Thomas said. "That hasn't been determined."

He and MUSD Finance Director Dan Contorno met several times with Cortessa before writing the agreement, Thomas added.

When board members asked about the agreement, he answered that "it's just the way they do it."

MUSD Superintendent Denny Dearden echoed board members' sentiments that the developer seemed to hurry this agreement in order to advertise the future school and sell more homes.

"It's to the advantage and need of the developer right now, and we need to turn that," Dearden said. "The ball's in their court."

The district soon will need another elementary school in the Avra Valley area, Thomas said. Cortessa's planned development would bring 400 to 500 new students into the district, and Roadrunner Elementary continues to near its capacity, he added.

This past year, 564 students enrolled at Roadrunner, according to the state's department of education.

The 10-acre site's previous owner had a handshake deal with district officials to preserve a school site. That deal fell through when Cortessa bought the property.

"We don't need, hands down, a school in this development," Kuhn said. "I can't take a gamble with school district funds."

Board members seemed to want to both renegotiate with Cortessa and nix a deal altogether. Confused, Thomas asked for specific direction.

"I feel like you haven't researched that area enough to know what you want to do yourself," Post said during a testy exchange with Thomas. He asked the maintenance director to present a future schools plan with growth projections for the area in question.

A Cortessa representative refused to comment on the record for this story.

In other business, the school board approved hires for two new positions.

Former Estes Elementary School Principal Rocky Sugameli will become the district's first director of leadership development. Sugameli will earn an annual salary of $90,911 attracting, developing and supporting the next generation of MUSD leaders, according to a job description.

Sugameli's transfer comes at a crucial time. Six principals in the district will become eligible to retire at the end of this coming school year.

"If we don't do something now, we're missing the boat," Dearden said.

Sugameli also will have a say in who fills his position at Estes.

The district also announced its hiring of Brett Kramer, a former Marana High School economics teacher and wrestling coach. Currently director of human resources for consulting firm 1Answer Solutions Inc., Kramer will become the district's head of research and evaluation with an annual salary of $65,826.

The district created the position as part of its strategic plan. Kramer will help decide which programs work and which do not. The district wants to niche the latter, Dearden has said several times.

A graduate of Marana schools and the University of Arizona, Kramer also taught at Iowa State University in Dearden's home state.

From 1996 to 1999, he planned and developed 4-H programs at UA.

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