After a hard-fought grassroots campaign by parents, teachers, administrators and community members, Navajo Elementary School will be repaired.
The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board last week voted 4-1 to repair the school using insurance funds and reserved the option to approve the use of additional district funds to pay for further mechanical and security upgrades.
The board also voted 4-1 to completely rebuild Cherokee Elementary School. Based on a district rubric that graded factors such as enrollment trends and school lifecycle costs, both the board and the superintendent’s cabinet agreed that Cherokee took priority over the other five schools the board considered for rebuilds.
Based on the rubric, the board and cabinet largely agreed on the priority for rebuilds going forward, ranking Cherokee first, Hohokam Elementary second, Kiva Elementary third and Pueblo Elementary fourth.
The board ranked Navajo fifth on the list, while the cabinet ranked Tavan Elementary for that spot.
While the district likely has enough funds in the current bond sale to fund two rebuilds or extensive refurbishments, it only approved Cherokee in order to avoid overloading district staff. Staff will also participate in the Navajo repair along with the insurance company.
Navajo parents happy
The red brick Navajo Elementary campus that sits in the center of a neighborhood at Granite Reef and Camelback roads was severely damaged after a fire broke out overnight on the campus in August. The incident resulted in significant fire, smoke and water damage to a portion of the campus.
It also caused asbestos contamination.
The school, district and local community reacted quickly and relocated students to a campus three miles away in about a day’s time but that was only a temporary solution.
The decision to repair the school pleased parents, who were not interested in a more extensive refurbishment or complete rebuild of the campus. They just wanted to get their kids back to the original campus as quickly as possible.
“I couldn’t be happier,” parent Elie Goodman said. “This is exactly what we’ve been asking for.”
The decision also pleased Principal Matthew Patzlaff, who said it gives critical certainty for parents considering Navajo Elementary – especially in the current open enrollment season.
“I’m on cloud nine,” he said. “We are getting back to where we need to be.”
Patzlaff said the decision will help the school compete for parents of young students, a demographic the district has struggled with in recent years.
The insurer will only pay for repairs to bring the Navajo Elementary campus back to the state it was in before the fire and to make necessary upgrades to bring the affected portions of the campus up to code, district interim CFO Jeff Gadd said.
Generally, the insurance money will cover asbestos abatement, the replacement of affected surfaces, lost records, code-related upgrades and the replacement of systems, such as air conditioning, damaged or contaminated beyond repair.
Insurance will not improve typical wear and tear or pre-existing problems, nor rodent infestations. Gadd has met with the insurer but has not been given an insurance pay-out amount to date.
However, he estimated the insurer will pay approximately $5 million to repair the school, though he stressed that was an unofficial estimate. The district will have to pay a $10,000 deductible.
The decision to repair Navajo was not an easy one for the board, which spent hours debating exactly what to do.
Prior to the vote, the board considered five general options: completely rebuild the school, repair the damaged area and refurbish the entire school with district funds, repair the damaged area and refurbish only the affected area with district funds, only repair the school with affected funds or consider consolidation with another school in the district.
That consolidation question has plagued the district for years as it struggles to address declining enrollment. Navajo Elementary was one of the schools in the consolidation discussion prior to the fire.
Board President Barbara Perleberg, the only member to vote against the repair, cited the enrollment question to explain her vote.
Perleberg stressed that she had nothing against Navajo specifically and sympathized with parents but could not separate the Navajo question out from the overall district-wide enrollment issues.
“How do our students suffer for our attachment to the buildings that we have?” she asked.
In the end, Navajo’s parents and STEAM program ended up saving the school.
Several board members who voted in favor of the repair cited the compelling and respectful arguments parents have made over the past two months and during the meeting.
One of the main arguments many parents made was that the district, and southern Scottsdale, could not afford to lose the quality of education that students receive at Navajo Elementary under the school’s STEAM curriculum.
STEAM is an educational approach that integrates STEM learning – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – with an emphasis on the arts.
The program is one of only two STEAM programs in the district, along with Laguna Elementary in northern Scottsdale, and feeds into the district’s Math and Science Academy at Saguaro High School.
Parents also argued that the STEAM program could be used to combat the enrollment issue.
Both parents and interim Superintendent John Kriekard believe an extensive rebuild is not necessary at this time.
Kriekard, who has experience setting up STEM programs at older-style schools like Navajo, said:
“I believe we can infuse more energy and local resources into a school like Navajo without having to rebuild a building and create special (labs) because it can be done with what we have, especially at a school that has a number of open spaces that are not being used as classrooms.”
Goodman, who has a marketing background, and other Navajo parents have also committed to creating an enrollment committee to help attract more students.
“We need to get these kids back on campus as soon as possible, so we can continue to build a world-class STEAM program in (southern) Scottsdale,” Goodman said.