PHOENIX – New schools are built at state expense to accommodate enrollment growth, but Arizona is seeing a big slowdown in housing construction.
Shouldn’t that add up to welcome savings in the state’s costly school-construction program? After all, the work carries a $370 million pricetag in just this fiscal year and the $10.6 billion state budget faces a projected $600 million shortfall.
Not so far, officials said.
The state School Facilities Board has dropped a handful of school projects because planned housing developments dropped off the drawing table, reducing projected enrollment growth in the scattering of districts involved.
But there hasn’t been a major retrenchment in school building overall, with about 30 new ones under construction around the state.
As an example, look to Tucson’s outskirts, where Vail Unified School District has 15 schools and three more in the works.
Superintendent Calvin Baker said the district thought information provided by developers on home starts and sales pointed to slower enrollment growth this year.
Growth did slow but just barely, with last year’s 12 percent enrollment growth slipping to 11 percent this year, not the anticipated 8 percent, Baker said. “We almost saw no change.”
The district had just 100 students 20 years ago. It has 9,000 now, and there’s still plenty of vacant land in the 425-square-mile district, Baker said.
“People like to move to sunshine,” he said. “We know they will continue to move into our district. It’s just going to be at a slower rate.”
It’s important to note that actual construction of the state-funded school projects doesn’t start until builders break ground for the housing developments whose new young residents will attend the new schools, said Chuck Essigs, a veteran Arizona school administrator who now lobbies for a group representing school business officials.
That means the state will have to pony up the money for projects whose construction funding is already budgeted, Essigs said.
“When the SFB is building a school for you, the houses are already under construction. It’s fairly short term,” he said. “Short-term, the number of schools that they have under construction isn’t going to change.”
But some school projects could be dropped within several years because developers are pulling back on new housing projects, Essigs said.
“People can’t move into houses unless they’re constructed,” he said. “There’s inventory out there but the builders are not expanding inventory.”
The School Facilities Board’s staff is analyzing more than 100 long-range planning reports recently submitted by districts under a new state requirement and Arizona’s population continues to grow, Executive Director John Arnold said.
That means more schools will be needed, he said.
“While we’re in the midst of a slowdown right now, everyone we talk to suggests the state is still going to grow and that we should be coming out of the slowdown in some future time,” Arnold said.
“We still have areas that are growing,” Arnold said, adding that many newcomers “are going into existing homes.”
Fast-growth areas include western and southeastern suburbs of Phoenix, Pinal County and Tucson suburbs, he said.
The canceled school projects were located in the Saddle Mountain, Humboldt and Stanfield districts in, respectively, Maricopa, Yavapai and Pinal counties, Arnold said.
“The developments have never materialized,” Arnold said.