March 1, 2006 - If you want to keep a school playground intact, you have to read the consent agenda.
Several Lulu Walker Elementary School parents and neighbors learned that lesson last month when a plan to build a parking lot on a portion of the school's playground was placed on an Amphitheater Public Schools Governing Board agenda. The item was quickly postponed after vigilant community members expressed their concern to the school district.
If approved, the agenda would have authorized Meritage Homes, which is building a large residential development across the street from Walker Elementary, to expand the school's parking lot over part of the playground.
Mary Schuh, a former Amphitheater school board member living near Walker Elementary, said the community was given little or no advance notice of the plan until the Feb. 21 meeting agenda was made public.
"No one was ever informed about this," Schuh said. "It's hard to conceive what this problem is all about. We can't lose any more of the playground."
The plan was tucked into the bottom of the board's consent agenda as item J and could have been approved without any discussion or debate by the school board along with the rest of the generally ministerial items listed there.
Board President Kent Barrabee said the protest from the community caught the board off guard. Barrabee said the district's attorney advised the board to table the item for further review.
"The reaction clarified that we hadn't informed the public sufficiently. It seemed more prudent to wait," Barrabee said. "I would say that had we thought it was an issue, we would have done it differently."
Barrabee said that Meritage is obligated to build a parking lot for the district since it has been unable to provide parking for the school in its new development as it had previously planned.
According to Douglas Aho, Amphitheater's executive manager of operational support, Meritage was required to put a retention basin for storm water in its new development in the space it had reserved for the parking lot. Instead, Meritage agreed to build the parking lot expansion over 9,940 square feet of playground space at a cost of about $40,000, Aho said.
"We're not desperate for parking space at Walker, but it's tight," Aho said. "The developer didn't speak to anyone in the neighborhood, and we thought that had been done."
Schuh said she first heard about the plan a day before the school board meeting from a neighbor who had asked a surveyor why he was out surveying the playground. After discovering what the school district would be voting on, Schuh said she spent the next morning passing out flyers to parents dropping off their kids at Walker school warning them about the parking lot plan. She later spoke out against the plan at the Feb. 21 school board meeting.
"We were very hurt and upset that none of us had been told," Schuh said.
Walker Principal Rosanne Lopez said playground space is very important, but the school also needs more parking space.
"We're 14 spaces short of standards. We have to do something," Lopez said. "We need a place to play and places to park. Right now, we have some people parking in the desert."
James Schuh also spoke out against the plan at last week's meeting. He said the need for more parking at Walker Elementary is overstressed.
"Very seldom do I ever see there not being adequate room to park (at Walker Elementary)," Schuh said.
He added that the land is more valuable to the community as a kickball field than as a parking lot.
"That doesn't sound like a lot of space, but they are constantly taking land away from the kids," James Schuh said. "The Surgeon General is saying we need to get kids to exercise to combat obesity, and at the same time we're cutting playground space."
Bob Lichtenberg, former president of the Walker Elementary Parent-Teacher Organization, said a nearby elementary school in the Flowing Wells Unified School District isn't faced with the same dilemma.
"Walter Douglas Elementary School has twice the playground space Walker does and only a third of the parking space," Lichtenberg said. "In 18 years, there's never been a need for more parking at Walker."
Greg Holt is a staff writer covering Oro Valley and the Amphitheater School District. You can reach him at 797-4384, ext. 116, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.