Policy Shift

In The Wake Of Some Curious Land Deals, The Amphitheater School District Is Changing The Way It Does Business.
By Jim Nintzel

LAST WEEK, COURTESY of our two daily newspapers, Pima County got its first Big Pygmy Owl Scare.

Both The Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen told readers that plans for a new high school in the Amphitheater School District could be scuttled by the possible presence of the endangered little critters.

It seems, however, this particular owl threat was somewhat overblown. There are, after all, only 20 known pygmy owls in all of southern Arizona--with none having been spotted on the Amphi property.

"Our most recent survey of that parcel indicates there are no birds there," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department spokesman Tom Bauer.

And, Bauer adds, the likelihood the tiny owl would stop construction of the school is slim: "In thousands and thousands and thousands of consultations all over the country, fewer than 1 percent of projects have been stopped. Usually, alternatives are developed in the process that allow the project to go forward."

Still, the press jumped on the pygmy owl angle, splashing headlines about the controversy across the top of both dailies. Had reporters dug a bit deeper, however, they might have found another story--one they continue to ignore: How Amphi purchased the 73-acre parcel at steep prices without having the land appraised.

In a deal arranged by real-estate broker Bill Arnold, a close political ally of then-Board President Vicki Cox-Golder, the district paid $1,775,723 for the 73-acre parcel--which comes out to about $24,045 an acre--from the parents of real-estate broker Andy Romo. At about the time, nearby parcels were selling for as low as $12,620 an acre.

Arnold, who also chaired Cox-Golder's losing campaign for the Pima County Board of Supervisors last year, made $53,270 for setting up the deal. In a similar deal never scrutinized by a professional appraiser, Arnold made an additional $45,000 for setting up the purchase of 36 acres for $815,000--$22,655 an acre--from former real-estate broker Neil Kleinman.

Steve Hitchman, the district's bond projects manager, now says the district didn't get an appraisal "for a number of reasons." Hitchman explains that "the seller didn't want to hang their property up in escrow for a long period of time, that's usually the main reason."

Asked why the Romos were in a rush to sell when, according to documents filed at the Pima County Assessor's Office, the property wasn't even on the market, Hitchman replies, "I can't be specific because I wasn't involved in it, so I don't know all of the details of why there wasn't a longer escrow period."

But Hitchman says the district looked over 13 different properties, although he no longer has a list of the candidates. Hitchman says the high end of the market was $87,000 an acre--a figure one source familiar with northwest-side property values calls "way out of line."

"You're not going to find 73 acres selling for that kind of money," says our source, who wishes to remain unnamed. "Downtown might sell for $87,000 an acre, but you're talking about some serious commercial property--not that land up there. All that is, is SR-zoned land."

Quizzed on the $87,000-an-acre property, Hitchman recalls, "It was up in our district in the northwest area somewhere. I don't know specifically where that particular piece of property was. It may have well been property in the Rancho Vistoso area. Obviously, developers will market a piece a property at an extremely exaggerated price per acre, hoping somebody will give them half that much. So it very well could have been a listed piece of property at $87,000."

Under his contract with Amphi, Arnold was also paid $95 an hour to do real-estate consultations for the district. In the four-month period between September and December of 1996, Arnold billed the district approximately $2,000. About $480--nearly one-fourth--of the charges were related to time spent finding public records requested by The Weekly which couldn't be found in district files.

"I've got to tell you that your efforts over there have created a minor blizzard of work for me over here, making copies and digging things up for them," Arnold told The Weekly last October. Little did we realize he was making hundreds of dollars complying with those requests.

Amphi Associate Superintendent Katie Frey, who worked with Arnold on the land deals, didn't return phone calls to discuss the billing records. She has since been reassigned to other duties.

Some positive changes, however, seem to be in the wind at Amphi. Following The Weekly's investigation into the district's land deals, the Amphi Board voted in December to revamp the way it does business.

Newly hired Associate Superintendent Todd Jaeger says Amphi's new land acquisition policy, which will be unveiled at a Board meeting later this month, will be markedly different from the district's previous approach.

Under Jaeger's proposal, the district would create a committee made up of "shareholders"--administrators, teachers and parents--who would review a number of parcels before making a decision on a school site.

"There's a lot of debate about, gee, is it best for a school district to buy through a secret escrow, or is it better to avoid that process and let everybody know what you're looking at and take whatever risk from that--that the price of the property is going to go up," Jaeger says. "I think it's generally better to have all the constituencies and all the shareholders, as they're called, involved from the start. You try to keep it as confidential as possible in terms of the negotiation process with the eventual seller, but I just don't know if those secret escrows are all they're cracked up to be." TW

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