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Education
Coolidge school board prepares for uncertain year ahead

COOLIDGE — Despite a decision the week before to transition to remote learning, the pandemic and its impacts dominated the discussion Dec. 8 at the Coolidge Unified School District board meeting.

Superintendent Charie Wallace announced that within a span of five days, 19 staff members and 18 students were quarantined, including one staff member who was hospitalized and was in serious condition. In addition, six custodial staff members at the high school were quarantined and the school was now using substitutes. Wallace also noted that 112 additional students were absent last week, with parents reporting they either had symptoms, tested positive for COVID-19 or were directly exposed to someone who did.

Wallace did not sugarcoat the challenges facing the district regarding student participation in the upcoming weeks of remote learning.

“Remote learning is not ideal,” Wallace said. “It is difficult for students to stay focused or engaged, or they just don’t log in. … Anybody who has taught high school knows that high school kids, their job is to figure out how to beat the system.”

Wallace said that plans were in place both to help students who may struggle to graduate on time or lose credit hours, including “robust” summer school programming, but also to enforce remote attendance. The school can turn off students’ iPads if they don’t turn in work and/or calls to parents go unheeded.

“We just rolled with non-attendance in March,” Wallace said. “We have made it clear that is not going to be the case next year.”

Board President Michael Flores praised the district’s readiness for remote learning but also questioned the fairness of criticism or ultimatums aimed their way from the community.

“The comment has been made to ‘do our job,’ directed at admin or the superintendent,” Flores said. “What you need to know is from Day 1, last February, we have done an exemplary job. … It just really gets to me to know that people just don’t understand the amount of sacrifice and effort and time that is put into every detail.”

Flores cited the extensive planning the school board had done since early in the year, including a 100-page pandemic planning document and countless special meetings.

“Did we get help from state or city officials? No,” Flores said. “We did what we had to do to keep our school safe, and teachers, staff and students safe.”

Director of Business Services Alyssa Garrett reported to the board that the pandemic needs were still well accommodated by the 2020-21 budget. Despite funding adjustments that became necessary due to students’ designation as hybrid learners, an enrollment stabilization grant helped compensate for a loss of $1 million. District-wide enrollment had also dropped by around 100 over the past year, to just under 2,050 students.

“There will be an impact we all know of in other areas: mental health, students, quality of education,” Garrett said, “but in terms of budget, federal funds coming in will pick up where COVID-19 is causing issues.”

Garrett also mentioned that the district would be looking at potential staffing and hiring changes in February, but that it would be tough to predict what the average daily membership calculation would be for next year. Students who are designated as distance learners are allocated 5% less state funding overall.

Earlier in the meeting, the newly elected and re-elected board members for 2021 were sworn in by chanting the CUSD song. The only non-incumbent, 20-year-old Diana Guerrero, officially became the youngest elected school board member; Guerrero was replacing the outgoing T.J. Shope, who did not seek re-election and who himself had first become a board member at age 23 back in 2009.

Shope, who was elected in November to the Arizona Senate after serving eight years in the House, said his time on the school board had been “a heck of a ride” and that he hoped he provided a good example — along with Flores, with whom he attended school — of Coolidge residents returning to give back to their community. Shope cited raising teacher pay — a 26% increase — as a major accomplishment during his tenure.

“We were the second lowest pay in the entire county, which was embarrassing,” Shope said. “If there is a legacy to leave behind, we got that turned around and hopefully that will continue.”

Shope said that as vice chair of the Senate Committee on Education, he would like to continue to help Coolidge in that capacity.

“We will miss you greatly and consider you an ally,” said board member Kris Gillespie. “I’m always amazed at what you were doing on the state level. It showed a lot of character that you still were on school board.”

Shope will receive an honorary gavel inscribed with the Coolidge logo at the end of the year as a parting gift.


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Coolidge light parade welcome respite from pandemic woes
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COOLIDGE — While the specter of COVID-19 has put a damper on Christmas celebrations this year, the Coolidge Christmas Light Parade was not a casualty.

In maintaining the annual parade, Coolidge became one of the few communities in Pinal County to have a public Christmas showcase this holiday season. A large crowd gathered around San Carlos Park on Friday evening to watch floats go by and offer a rare break from increasingly virtual and sheltered routines, as dictated by the pandemic.

“It’s been limiting,” said local resident Carmen Quintero, who was out at the parade with her family for their first holiday event of the year. “We’re Mexicans, so we like to get together. We’re trying to be as safe as possible and (the virus) is hitting too close to home right now.”

The celebration was not unaffected by pandemic restrictions. According to Brittany Chitwood, the recreation coordinator for the Coolidge Parks and Recreation Department, significant adjustments had to be made, including scrapping the street vendors and Santa’s appearance in the park. The staff struggled to get parade floats to commit, and some pulled out due to safety concerns. Ultimately there were 23 floats in the parade, down from the usual 30 to 40.

“We set rules in place, and we have lots of staff,” Chitwood said before the parade. “We’re all trying our best.”

Many in attendance seemed grateful for the opportunity for some holiday cheer and a brief return to normalcy.

“We are not doing a lot of the festivities that they normally do, which is kind of a bummer,” said Coolidge resident Kendall Osborne, who — along with her husband and family — took her newborn child to see the lights for the first time. “We’re excited that Coolidge is doing something. That’s what makes me happy.”

Osborne said she and her husband loved the homemade, amateur aspect of the floats, which created a more intimate parade than something in a larger city.

“It’s truly important that we still have something community-wise to come together for,” said Jacob Fenn, who deejayed the event. “There were more people than I thought coming out tonight. … It’s been a long time since anybody has done anything.”

Fenn said that the holiday season has been tough for him personally, with his father passing away — not from COVID-19 — and that he had more respect than ever for life and family.

Coolidge Christmas Light Parade

Some in the crowd had traveled from surrounding areas to visit the parade, due to other local towns canceling their own events. Florence canceled its annual parade, while Casa Grande and Eloy switched to electric light tours so participants could view displays in a drive-by format.

The winning floats were announced at the end of the night. The MN Electric Company’s entry came in first, followed by Top CDE and Las Guadalupanas. Team Keiser’s “Reach for the Stars” display was named best family float, while the civic and commercial titles went to the Eloy Fire Department and Hughes Towing, respectively. Winners will receive personalized trophies in the coming weeks.


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New Pinal Hispanic Council office planned for downtown Coolidge
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COOLIDGE — Along Coolidge’s historic Main Street and Central Avenue are several empty lots or shuttered buildings. On Dec. 9, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved several projects to fill in those empty spaces and spur downtown development. Most significantly, the Pinal Hispanic Council plans to build an office on Central Avenue where the old Cohen’s Department Store used to be.

“This would make a very nice addition to the downtown area,” City Manager Rick Miller said. “It will help create that downtown feel again. When you have these large voids and slabs, it doesn’t have a very attractive look.”

Miller described the previous Cohen’s space as a “beautiful historic building” that had fallen to neglect. It was demolished several years ago following a roof collapse.

The new plan, designed by Valley architect David Ortega, will include Native American-themed artwork similar to what was in the Cohen building’s entryway. The site plan includes a nurse’s office, a wellness center with exercise equipment and conference room spaces for community groups.

Despite some concern about the plan’s lack of additional parking spaces, Miller said that in some respects, a parking “problem” would be a sign of healthy business in the area.

Currently the PHC has a Coolidge office on Arizona Boulevard, but Chief Executive Officer Ralph Varela described the space as needing a lot of work and too small for the services.

The PHC has five offices in central and southern Arizona and provides behavioral health services for children and adults. Varela said that development of the new facility is expected to cost $3.1 million.

Other projects approved include a private garage and storage building next to Shorty’s bar, deemed necessary so the longtime establishment can reopen, and a permit to replace an older housing unit with a double-wide mobile home and improved landscaping.

The commission also approved updating zoning codes on medical and recreational marijuana, in light of the recently passed Proposition 207, although city GIS Coordinator Tim Hansen assured commission members that “we are not going to see the downtown boulevard lined with marijuana dispensaries.”


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Coolidge council preps for marijuana legalization
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COOLIDGE — With the passage of Proposition 207 last month, the Coolidge City Council took several preliminary steps toward addressing the expanded legalization of marijuana and what it means for the city.

At its last meeting of the year on Monday, the council discussed adjusting the zoning code by putting medical and recreational marijuana into one category for planning purposes.

Ultimately the decision was postponed until January. Mayor Jon Thompson expressed a desire to see a map that would show where marijuana can be sold in Coolidge based on current zoning. Current restrictions determine where facilities can be located, and how far away they need to be from places such as schools or churches.

“The state’s going to wade into it in March,” Thompson said. “Anything we do now, they may change some of it and we’re going to have to go by their decision.”

According to GIS Coordinator Tim Hansen, current laws limit allocation of recreational marijuana licenses to a number based on one in 10 pharmacies in the state.

“There is a finite amount of licensing available,” Hansen said. “The existing medical (marijuana) establishment gets first crack at it.”

Hansen said that as far as private growers are concerned, the state limits individuals to six plants, and no more than 12 per residence.

“Outdoor in your backyard is probably not something you can do,” Hansen said, “but you can dedicate a room in your house with a lock on it, or something similar.”

Hansen also said if the state did not come out with regulations on March 1, medical marijuana dispensaries could sell to the public by default until those changes were made.

Other business items included approving the annual Martin Luther King Jr. march on Jan. 18, and officially electing Steve Hudson as vice mayor on a two-year term. Councilwoman Jacque Hendrie-Henry had been the vice mayor for the last six years.

“I want to thank City Council members for having faith in me to fill that position,” Hudson said.

The council agreed to postpone an agreement on leasing land adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant because City Manager Rick Miller was hoping that within the next year, the city could move effluent to another farm so they could capture long-term storage credits.

The mayor also announced plans for a Nikola job fair in the city on Jan. 16, with the company hiring in April.


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