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Council debates admission charge to McFarland Park
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FLORENCE — The Town Council approved various agreements pertaining to continued local operation of McFarland State Historic Park, although some members weren’t entirely pleased with plans to begin charging $5 admission to adults.

The admission charge is part of the new contract between the town and Arizona State Parks.

Councilwoman Kristen Larsen suggested making it only $5 per adult, which would still make it affordable for families.

Florence Economic Development Director Elan Vallender said upon closer inspection of the state’s contract, the charge is in fact only for adults.

Councilman John Anderson said he entirely opposed an admission charge. He said the town is trying to encourage visitors, and the visitor center at the park acts as the town’s “welcome center.”

Mayor Tara Walter said the taxpayers already pay for the park’s operation, “and now we’re charging them again.” Councilman Johnie Mendoza asked if it’s possible to give local residents a discount. Vallender said changing or eliminating the admission charge would require changing the state’s contract.

Councilman Arthur “Snake” Neal said he has a lot of children, and admission charges add up. He said he’d rather see it lower, but he can live with $5 per adult.

The building, constructed in 1878, was the first Pinal County Courthouse. It was later the local hospital for almost 50 years. The visitor center, gift shop and park remain closed for the pandemic, although the Chamber of Commerce continues to provide tourist information by phone and by mail.

Vice Mayor Michelle Cordes noted people normally pay to visit a state park but asked where the admission charges would go. Vallender said it would be held in an account until a proper use was determined.

The Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce, which runs the park and visitor center, isn’t looking to profit from the admission charge, Executive Director Roger Biede told the council. He said it might be used to promote tourism.

Cordes asked for clarification of the contract between the town and the Chamber of Commerce.

Vallender said it’s a “professional services agreement” with the chamber to operate and manage the park for the town. “It does not give the town the ability to interfere or interject in any of the chamber’s normal day-to-day operations of chamber business and otherwise, but it does again govern the chamber’s management and operation of the visitors center and McFarland State Park specifically,” Vallender said.

Anderson also asked why ropes remain around the porch. Town Manager Brent Billingsley said the ropes are for safety, and it is the state’s responsibility for ensuring compliance with the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act.

The council on Jan. 19 approved three agreements related to McFarland State Historic Park: a contract between Arizona State Parks and the town to manage the park through Dec. 31, 2025; a contract between the town and the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce to manage the park through Dec. 31, 2022 for $55,000 per year; and a revocable license/lease agreement between the town and the chamber to manage the park through 2022.

The town has partnered with Arizona State Parks since 2010 to operate McFarland State Park, and the chamber has managed the park since 2013. A decade ago, Arizona State Parks entered into agreements with several municipalities throughout Arizona to manage its five historic state parks, and the municipalities partnered with local nonprofits to manage daily operations at each park.

The parks were facing immediate closure due to state budget constraints but have remained open with these partnerships, according to a town staff report.

The council also voted to accept a grant from the Arizona Department of Homeland Security for $102,058 to buy two license plate readers and a narcotics analyzer to be used for “Operation Stonegarden,” a cooperative effort to suppress border-related crime and violence.

Florence Police Chief Bruce Walls told the council the license plate readers will give officers immediate knowledge of stolen vehicles and wanted persons, and the narcotics analyzer will enable officers to scan suspected controlled substances in a single, definitive test.

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FUSD plans for staggered return of students
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FLORENCE — Students in the elementary grades will return for regular in-person classes on Feb. 8, and high school students will return on Feb. 16, the Florence Unified School District governing board voted Tuesday afternoon.

Board President Denise Guenther said no one predicted the disruption of a pandemic, “But at the same time we are essential. Kids come to us because they have nowhere else. So I’m struggling, I really am. I do not support virtual learning. But I do support this district and the administration and the hard work they have put in. … We have to get these kids back in school.”

FUSD’s 10,000 students in San Tan Valley and Florence have all been learning from home since Jan. 14, when the school board voted to close school buildings in response to high teacher absences.

Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie told the board Tuesday the effects of the holiday season on the pandemic appear to have peaked in mid-January and are now tapering off. Keeping the buildings closed an additional week gives teachers more time to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, he said.

But it’s especially important to get K-3 students back in regular classes, because they are least likely to benefit from online instruction. “Those students are also most likely to need supervision at home, and our community struggles” because so many parents commute, Leckie said.

Although some students struggle with learning from home, or “virtual learning,” Leckie said FUSD has improved its virtual instruction over the past year and saw significant improvement in the fall. “The feedback we’re getting so far is yes, it’s still challenging in certain respects, but it’s better than it was. Kids are more engaged … and kids are completing work at a much higher level.”

The district has also considered a “hybrid model” of instruction, in which the student body is divided into two groups that are in the building on different days. FUSD has yet to try it. FUSD hears from other districts that it brings significant challenges and drawbacks, Leckie told the board Tuesday.

Also, “One of the last things we wanted to do was put a different learning method out there right now for our families. … The benefits of staying with a consistent approach with virtual learning we felt outweighed the inconsistency and novelty of a new approach,” he said.

Even during district-wide virtual learning, students can still avail themselves of “Internet Opportunity Zones” at their schools. This is for students who need internet access, have child care concerns, “or just need to be in a school during this time,” Leckie said. There were approximately 81 students last week and about 78 this week who used this service.

By having high school students return a week later than elementary students, the district can also use high school substitute teachers at the elementary level to better ensure classes are covered, Leckie told the board. Superintendent Chris Knutsen said substitute teachers are still very much needed. He told people in the community who have college degrees, “We need you to come and sub for us.”

Board member Sherri Jones asked what happens after Feb. 16.

“We’ve turned on a dime 50 times over the last 11 months,” Knutsen said. “We don’t have a crystal ball, so I really hope everyone stays forever positive that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I think that’s how we have to live our lives.”