SUSD Governing Board Cherokee Elementary Rebuild

Dozens of stakeholders, including SUSD Governing Board Vice President Allyson Beckham (third from right), met with architects from Orcutt Winslow to discuss plans for the Cherokee Elementary rebuild.

Parents and stakeholders in the Cherokee Elementary School community have worked closely with architects to drive the design of Scottsdale Unified School District’s latest bond-funded school rebuild.

At the third meeting between design firm Orcutt Winslow and the community on Jan. 28, architects divided participants into groups and had them design their own site plans.

Parents, teachers, administrators, neighbors and even a few board members showed up to the meeting.

Using scaled-down layouts of the existing Cherokee campus, they moved around square and rectangle cutouts representing different pieces the community previously stated it wanted to see – including classrooms, parking, outdoor class space and gardens.

The exercise gave community members the opportunity to visualize the constraints put on the project by the site itself – which is situated in the middle of a neighborhood.

Tim O’Neil, education leader with Orcutt Winslow, said that the priorities and considerations illustrated by the exercise will inform the architects’ decisions as they create plans to present to the school board and public.

“This way, parents have some ownership,” he said.

The parking and traffic situation were top concerns for many parents and each group spent a significant amount of time attempting to alleviate existing congestion issues without encroaching on valuable campus space.

Safety was also a primary issue with the country's current gun violence epidemic at top of mind.  

Some community members sought to enclose many outdoor activities within natural courtyards formed by buildings on the campus.

One woman was overheard saying, “A fence isn’t going to stop a bullet; buildings stop a bullet.”

Architects from Orcutt Winslow sat with each group to help them solve logistical issues and tell them more about things they consider when designing schools.

For instance, O’Neil cautioned parents against moving previously-installed solar panels in the parking lot because the district had already paid for them.

O’Neil said the company does not always take this extremely collaborative approach with rebuilds, but it is also not unique.

“For some communities, openness and collaboration is extremely important,” he said. “Other districts just want us to get right to it.”

The approach is different than the one taken during the last round of rebuilds spearheaded by Hunt & Caraway Architects.

Those projects, which included the now-completed Hopi campus, were fraught with issues and ultimately resulted in multiple lawsuits and the ouster of then-Superintendent Denise Birdwell.

A suit filed by the Arizona Attorney General caused the cancellation of multiple projects over concerns that the district’s lead architect, Hunt & Caraway’s Brian Robichaux, was not licensed in Arizona and that he illegally influenced the awarding of construction contracts for projects at Hohokam and Cheyenne Traditional School.

The district settled with the Attorney General’s Office in October 2017, and agreed to a separate settlement with Hunt & Caraway in December 2017 to resolve $345,000 in payment disputes.

Parents raised concerns about Robichaux and Hunt & Caraway long before the state got involved, though.

When Hunt & Caraway designed the new campus at Hopi Elementary School – which was officially dedicated by the district on Feb. 6 – parents and stakeholders complained that their input was not incorporated in the school’s new design.

That lack of input left many parents unhappy with the new campus.

Parents taking part in the Cherokee rebuild process have had a decidedly different experience.

“My kids are going to be coming here for the next five or six years…so it is very important to be engaged in this process,” said parent Skip Robinson, who is on the Cherokee Visioning Committee put together by Principal Walt Chantler to help guide the architects’ work.

“Orcutt Winslow has done a really good job making this available and being transparent so that there is a voice from the many different groups of people that this will represent,” Robinson said.

The next major decision on the horizon is whether or not Cherokee Elementary school will be renovated or completely rebuilt.

O’Neil anticipated that decision would be made by the end of April. The next meeting between architects and community members will be on April 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Cherokee Elementary School.

“We will be coming back here to talk about concepts for either one and then we will be doing a presentation to the governing board,” O’Neil said.