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Checking in With Mike Penca

Mike Penca stands inside his office at the Flagstaff Unified School District offices on Sparrow Avenue.

With last week’s approval of Propositions 423 and 424, providing a $75 million bond and 15 percent property tax renewal, Flagstaff Unified School District will prioritize its plans before moving forward with the projects authorized by this newfound funding.

“We’re humbled and appreciative of all the support we’ve received from our families, our communities,” said FUSD Superintendent Michael Penca. “Every day we see all kinds of support for our schools…[but] this was above and beyond.”

The two propositions passed with 60 and 63 percent yes votes, respectively. Penca attributes some of the support to this year’s statewide Red for Ed movement, which he says increased awareness in educational funding throughout the state, including in northern Arizona.

“We appreciate the investment and the trust that our community has demonstrated in this election and we’re excited to get to work,” he added.

Although significant prework was put into these proposals already, the district intends to collaborate with the school board and Bond Oversight Committee before diving into any major projects. Many of the district’s specific plans, like the elementary school that will be replaced, are to be decided at upcoming prioritization meetings with these two groups in late November and December.

These meetings will establish the timeline for the approved renovation projects. Penca expects securing permits, bidding on the work to be completed and starting to sell bonds will all occur early next year, with the most time-sensitive project — the renovations to Mount Elden Middle School — beginning summer 2019 at the earliest, followed by the implementation of the one-to-one technology initiative (one device for each student) for the upcoming school year.

Replacement of an entire elementary school is a major undertaking that is not scheduled to begin for at least another year. In the H2 Group’s investigation of FUSD properties earlier this year, Kinsey and Killip Elementary Schools, two of the district’s oldest buildings, were recommended for full replacement, a more cost-effective approach than renovation -- $36.2 million for a new building rather than $9.5 million in renovations to last only a few years.

Prior to determining the location of a new school, the district will conduct demographic studies to evaluate its long-term needs. These results will determine if the new school will be placed on its own plot of land or on the replaced school’s existing property.

“[We are] trying to project where our long-term needs are so that we’re prepared to support where growth is happening,” Penca said. “At those oldest sites, there is room to replace the school on the property…we just have to determine if that best meets the needs.”

The decision was also stalled by other city propositions on last week’s ballots, especially those related to transportation. Penca said such decisions can have an effect on the school community and, consequently, the placement of a new school.

“Those are discussions that can be had now that the elections are over and the results are in,” he said.

Throughout the implementation of FUSD’s plans, Penca says the goal is to minimize the tax impact on local property owners. To do so, the district will work closely with a financial adviser to sell bonds appropriately, possibly in multiple chunks.

“January and February are really firm with projects and timelines and to start selling the bonds…and then we start working the plan,” Penca said.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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