Work on new school could face delay
Somerton-area farmland owners decline to sign agreement
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.”
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.