Work on new school could face de­lay

Somer­ton-area farm­land own­ers de­cline to sign agree­ment

Yuma Sun - - FRONT PAGE - BY CE­SAR NEYOY BAJO EL SOL

SOMER­TON — The con­struc­tion of a high school here has hit a snag be­cause own­ers of nearby farm­land have de­clined to sign an agree­ment re­strict­ing pes­ti­cide use.

Ap­pear­ing re­cently be­fore the Somer­ton City Coun­cil, Yuma Union High School District Su­per­in­ten­dent Gina Thomp­son said the own­ers of the neigh­bor­ing parcels must sign the agree­ment in order for the district to be­gin build­ing the school at a site on the city’s west side.

She said state law bars a school from op­er­at­ing with­out agree­ments in place lim­it­ing pes­ti­cide use within a quar­ter-mile ra­dius of the school prop­erty.

Such an agree­ment does not im­pose an out­right ban on pes­ti­cides but es­tab­lishes times for their use to pre­vent pos­si­ble health risks to stu­dents and school em­ploy­ees, she said.

Thomp­son told the coun­cil the district has signed agree­ments with four of five own­ers of sur­round­ing the high school but is lack­ing a pact for the fifth that is in a fam­ily trust.

“The district’s commitment (to build­ing the high school) re­mains as strong as in the be­gin­ning, but as with any other project, we want to make sure ev­ery­thing is in place be­fore be­gin­ning. We can’t build the school and we don’t want to in­vest in ar­chi­tects and de­signs with­out hav­ing that agree­ment.”

Somer­ton city of­fi­cials and res­i­dents have long ap­pealed to the district to build a school to serve Somer­ton youth, most of whom now travel to Yuma to at­tend Kofa or Ci­bola high schools. In 2015, YUHSD cam­paigned for and won voter ap­proval of a nearly $80 mil­lion bond is­sue to fi­nance im­prove­ments to its cam­puses, in­clud­ing about $25 mil­lion set aside for the Somer­ton high school.

Thomp­son said the district has sought meet­ings with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the trust, but none have taken place so far.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for the trust could not be reached for com­ment.

Last year the district ac­quired a lit­tle more than 76.1 acres on the city’s west side and north of Main Street as the site for the school. Thomp­son says she re­mains hope­ful con­struc­tion can be­gin in 2019 or 2020.

She ap­pealed to the coun­cil for its sup­port in se­cur­ing the agree­ment with the hold­outs.

“Some­times when you are an ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion, you don’t al­ways get re­spect from out­side. We’ve even paid at­tor­neys to speak with them, but some­times stronger lan­guage could be nec­es­sary.”

Thomp­son, ac­com­pa­nied by a cou­ple of district of­fi­cials, ap­peared be­fore the coun­cil in re­sponse to con­cerns ex­pressed about the de­lay.

“Now we have the an­swers for the com­mu­nity about this project,” said Somer­ton City Coun­cil­man Miguel Vil­lal­pando. “It was im­por­tant for them to come so that we could know in what way we can help.

“The school is some­thing we want to bring to the com­mu­nity and the plans can­not stop now,” added Vil­lal­pando, who is also a mem­ber of a par­ents com­mit­tee in Somer­ton has been rais­ing funds to pay for ex­tracur­ric­u­lar pro­grams at the school once it opens.

The last re­course avail­able to the district, he said, would be ac­quir­ing the land through em­i­nent do­main, an op­tion he con­ceded would rule out fur­ther at­tempts at talks to gain needed sig­na­tures for the agree­ment.

Apart from the agree­ment, Thomp­son said the district also faces the is­sue of be­ing able to fully staff the high school. She said the district cur­rently has 82 va­cant po­si­tions.

“We don’t want to have some pretty build­ings with­out the staff to take care of the stu­dents.”

PHOTO BY CE­SAR NEYOY/BAJO EL SOL

YUMA UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT SU­PER­IN­TEN­DENT GINA THOMP­SON (cen­ter), flanked by the district’s chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer, Di­anne Cordery, and fa­cil­i­ties di­rec­tor Crespin Munoz, ad­dresses the Somer­ton City Coun­cil con­cern­ing ef­forts to build a new high school in that city.

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