La Canada Hills Limited Partnership has agreed to pay Amphitheater Public Schools $1,200 each time a house sells in its upcoming development, on the south side of the future La Canada Drive extension south of Moore Road.

That's the fifth developer to make such a promise since representatives of the district began speaking out in 2001, predicting a future need for new school buildings.

"What we're working on is just creating a new concept - a new paradigm - in terms of what happens when you build something new in a school district," Superintendent Vicki Balentine said.

If development goes as planned for Black Horse Partners, Monterey Homes, Estes Co., and the A.F. Sterling Co., the district will eventually be an estimated $800,000 richer, said Todd Jaeger, assistant to the superintendent. About $35,000 of that is expected to come from the La Canada Hills agreement.

Jaeger added, "A couple others are close but not finalized yet."

"Our interest has to be the continued excellence in the Amphi school district, and we have to use whatever strategies we have to move toward that," Balentine said. "This is only one."

The school district's use of creative strategies came in response to a change in the way new school buildings are funded.

Arizona's system for funding school building projects was declared unconstitutional in 1994 because it provided many poorer students with buildings and equipment inferior to that of children in wealthier areas.

In 1999, a School Facilities Board, not part of the Arizona Department of Education, became the entity to dole out money for new school buildings.

Under the new structure, a school could only be built if all others in the district for its age group were full.

That meant that if school districts didn't want students taking long bus rides, they had to take matters into their own hands.

Apache Junction, a city in Pinal County, became a role model for that.

The town, with city limits and school district boundaries that covered essentially the same area, began making developers pay impact fees, which were then passed to the schools.

Developers took the issue to court, arguing that the fees upset Arizona's work to equalize school funding. A Pinal County judge ruled that the fees were fine, but the fees were deemed unlawful in the Arizona Court of Appeals.

The future of school impact fees was uncertain at that time, though, because an Arizona legislator had introduced a bill that would authorize cities to apply the fees.

In an atmosphere of uncertainty, Amphi governing board members sat down in January of 2001 to plan a meeting with the Oro Valley Town Council to discuss the possibility of mandatory school impact fees.

When the bill didn't go through, many school districts, including Amphi, began seeking voluntary "school impact fees" from developers.

Black Horse Partners was the first developer to make such a donation, in December 2001.

"(The fee) is not a big deal for most," said Carl Winters, a planning consultant representing La Canada Hills. "As long as … there's no competitive disadvantage to the developer, they usually don't mind."

In April, Amphi's governing board OK'd a policy that allows the school district to tell developers that if they don't make voluntary donations, their residents' children might have to be bused to faraway schools.

In October, Amphi sent letters to all developers who were actively developing in the school district's jurisdiction, Balentine said.

"We sent 30 or 40 letters," she said.

Developers were asked to contact the school district to talk about donating either money or land for new schools.

"I'm aware of only one who has said 'no way,'" Balentine said.

Ken Scoville, Amphi's community development liaison, declined to comment on which developer it was, not wishing to jeopardize any future negotiations.

In the case of La Canada Hills, the developer approached Amphi, rather than the other way around.

That's because the property was being rezoned, said Winters, who worked closely with the developer. As part of the zoning process, a developer must assess its impact on the environment, and that requires contacting the school districts.

But in other cases, developers are not required to contact Amphi - something the district is trying to change.

In Marana, as in Apache Junction and other communities, new developers must meet with representatives of their school district.

"Basically when someone comes in to develop, we make sure they have actually communicated with the school district so they know what the proposed development is," said Frank Cassidy, Marana's town attorney. "They are at the table, we're all talking to each other, they know what's coming on board."

Marana Unified School District just started asking developments for monetary donations in the past several months, and has gotten donations from two, said William "Wade" McLean, the district's former superintendent, who still works for the district on real estate issues.

But the district has secured land gifts from developments, and now has future school sites strategically placed in the Continental Ranch area, in the Tortolita Mountains, at Gladden Farms and in Avra Valley.

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