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Maricopa announces 'limited openings' after pressure from council member
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — The city of Maricopa announced Thursday evening that it will reopen several public amenities in the coming days.

The reopening includes playgrounds and skate parks, the dog park, ramadas and shaded areas, and all athletic fields and courts except for baseball and softball fields at Copper Sky Regional Park.

The city is also reinstating a curbside library pickup program and adding a new “drive-in movie night.”

Discussion over the reopening of public services has been a hot topic as Gov. Doug Ducey weighs the decision of when the state will begin reopening. The current stay-at-home orders were extended Wednesday to May 15, with a soft opening of certain services happening this week.

Maricopa Councilman Vincent Manfredi posted to his public Facebook page saying he was “disappointed” by Ducey’s decision. He later made a public post that has since been deleted stating the following.

“To be 100% clear, I oppose park amenities in the City of Maricopa being closed. I think we should allow residents to use the amenities they paid for by this weekend,” Manfredi wrote, listing amenities. “Please email citycouncil@maricopa-az.gov and tell the rest of (the) council to open these amenities. If you don’t think they should NOT be open my suggestion would be, don’t use them.”

Shortly after, local resident Andrew Miller penned an email to the council urging members to keep public spaces closed and expressing his concern about the spread of COVID-19.

“Governor Ducey still has an active Stay at Home order, with restrictions starting to ease slowly over the coming weeks,” Miller wrote in his email. “Councilmember Manfredi, in his attached statement, is using a political, public page. One might argue due to the title and names he uses that it is his official councilmember profile. If so, I find it extremely disheartening that a representative from the City of Maricopa would use their official councilmember page to advocate for the direct violation of an Executive Order that is designed to protect its inhabitants during a health crisis.”

As part of his response to Miller’s email, Manfredi said the following.

“What I am clearly saying and you seem to miss is people should be able to hit a little yellow ball over the net back-and-forth to one another,” Manfredi said. “I believe a mother and her daughter should be able to pick up a sandwich at a local shop, and then sit at a picnic table and eat it. I don’t see why you are opposed to these things, as they have zero impact on your life. I believe these amenities will likely stay closed, and you will be safe from seeing a kid throw a ball at a hoop.”

Manfredi stated in his response that the city will follow the governor’s orders as written. The orders put into question by Miller were the following:

“Executive Order 2020-12 and all subsequent Orders including Executive Order 2020-33 have encouraged the public to … ‘engag[e] in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running, biking or golfing, but only if appropriate physical distancing practices are used.’ Further, per the Order, “to the extent individuals are using shared or outdoor spaces when outside their residence or property for Essential Activities, they shall, to the extent possible, maintain physical distancing of at least six feet from any other person, consistent with guidance from the CDC.”

The above executive order statements were also printed at the bottom of the newest release from the city of Maricopa announcing the reopening of public amenities.

Miller said in his email that his family members deal with underlying health conditions, and that almost 30% of Maricopans are over the age of 50. Census data from 2018 mirrors that estimation. Because of these issues, he believes reopening public facilities under the stay-at-home order is the wrong decision.

“I think that this decision today opens the city up for potentially dangerous circumstances,” Miller said. “I don’t think everyone’s going to go rushing to the basketball courts right now, because I think by and large, people are scared and timid, and they don’t want coronavirus to be in their community. But I think if you allow that and if you provide a platform for that to occur, that’s different than having those activities occur and on a neighborhood basis.”

Miller told PinalCentral that, following the city’s decision, he was told it was not a council decision, and it had ultimately been City Manager Rick Horst’s decision. Horst was unavailable for comment Thursday.

Mayor Christian Price made the following statement regarding Thursday’s events.

“First let me say that members of the community, including council members, always have a right to petition their governments for things they are passionate about and would like to see evaluated,” Price said in an email. “Clearly there are many sides to this virus debate and each are entitled to their opinions, but the job of the city is to balance the need and use of public’s amenities with that of public safety.”

Price went on to state that in the early days of the pandemic, the public amenities were closed as the city felt people were not actively participating in social distancing. However, they now feel it is time to re-evaluate what they could reopen while still abiding by the executive orders set by Ducey and the recommendations given by the CDC.

“The city will remain subject to the legal authority of the Governor under his State of Emergency and Executive Orders, and will follow them to the letter,” Price concluded.

Miller signed his email, “Should the Council act with caution, history will judge your actions kindly. Should the Council act with haste, there is a short term gain, with the possibility of a longer, larger term loss.”

Day care licensing seen as key in search for reliable child care
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — In the search for child care, there is a seemingly endless list of boxes to check. Of course there are safety concerns: Are the children watched at all times? Is the play area safe and sanitary? But then there are also questions of credibility, like background checks, CPR training and the basic knowledge and ability to work with children.

For a parent looking for child care, it can feel like a minefield. Nobody wants to put their child in the hands of someone who cannot properly care for children. While the Federal and State Government can monitor a great deal, they cannot guarantee child safety.

“I’m finding a lot more parents are wanting a licensed in-home provider or at least someone who has some sort of qualifications,” said Laurie McCracken, owner and lead teacher of Baby Fox Academy, a child care facility in Maricopa.

She runs the facility out of the ground level of her home, which has been entirely outfitted as a functional preschool. She is a certified in-home provider, who runs a hands-on, play-based preschool with no screens. Her program mirrors Montessori, and the kids enjoy playing outside in their mud kitchen, or with shaving cream.

“The kids come to school (and) they get dirty,” McCracken said with a laugh. “I tell my parents when they come for interviews, ‘Do not send them into school in anything that you love. Not their favorite dress, not a costume — nothing that is important to you because as much as manufacturers say things are washable, they’re not always 100% washable.’”

McCracken has over 20 years of experience as a teacher. During her time in the public school system, she was a reading specialist, a reading interventionist and a district trainer. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s in early literacy. Her academy is equally as accredited.

“We’re a Quality First program, we’re in the FFN (Family, Friends and Neighbors) program, we’re now an Enrichment Center, we’re certified by the USDA, so we try to do what’s best for kids on a regular basis and not just ‘watch kids,’” McCracken said.

When McCracken first arrived, she noticed a shortage of licensed child care facilities in Maricopa and moved here with the dream of opening up a child care center. The shortage is still ongoing, and she sees how some unlicensed caregivers can affect the industry.

“One of the biggest things I hear from parents that come to tour, when we give the information on what the laws are, is there are a ton of providers who are not licensed that have more than four children in their care,” McCracken said.

Being licensed or certified by the state is not a requirement to provide child care to children in Arizona. In an unlicensed home, the provider can care for up to six children, and receive payment for up to four. The provider does not need to pass any background check, drug test or fingerprinting. They are not inspected and are not required to know CPR.

Unlicensed day cares still have the option of registering with Child Care Research and Referral, which can provide another safeguard for parents and does require a background check and fingerprinting, but only for the provider. Up-to-date CPR certification is also required.

Conversely, a certified or licensed provider is required to pass a background check and fingerprinting as do all adults who will be present in the home. They also need to pass regular inspections by Quality First and be CPR and first-aid certified. They also have the option of becoming a part of the USDA food program to serve healthy snacks.

A full list of the differences between each in-home day care can be found here.

For McCracken, the issue is not unlicensed providers themselves but what happens when they break the law.

“It’s really hard to get an illegally operating, unlicensed provider shut down unless your child has gotten hurt, or a parent has filed a police report,” McCracken said. “A lot of times parents are afraid to report things that happen to their children. I literally could sit here for hours and tell you stories that would make your skin crawl with things that I hear.”

She pointed to a story in 2018 of a 2-year-old child who went missing from a Maricopa day care center, only to be found wandering around nearly two hours later by landscape workers. The day care owner allegedly had 15 children there with only one adult and was charged with felony child abuse following the incident.

“That’s one of the risks that parents are running into when they choose a provider who is operating illegally,” McCracken said.

McCracken’s child care center falls under the term “child care group home,” meaning she can have a maximum of 10 children not including her own. The ratio is technically one provider for every five children, but she has three adults present at all times.

“I wish more providers were doing what was best for children and not what was best for themselves. What I mean by that is, it’s not difficult to get licensed. If a provider is not getting licensed, there’s a reason they’re not getting licensed. I don’t want to speculate what that reason is,” McCracken said.

There are a variety of online resources for families searching for quality child care, including useful checklists for parents to bring while they tour facilities. For McCracken, some of the most important things parents should look for in a preschool include checking the supervision ratio (children to adults) and overall group size.

A few of McCracken’s parents have had negative experiences with unlicensed providers. Mother-of-three Amanda Zarzynski applied for two day cares at the same time and committed to another before Baby Fox offered her an opening. She decided to give the other day care a shot first, but her 4-year-old wasn’t happy.

“Every single day he was crying, and he didn’t want to go to school,” Zarzynski said. “He was devastated. He would fake being sick every single day. And for a 4-year-old at day care, it should be something that’s fun for them.”

Zarzynski noticed troubling new behaviors in her son that he hadn’t exhibited in the past, acting out and throwing tantrums.

Her son wouldn’t tell her what was wrong and gave vague answers as to why he didn’t want to go to preschool. He mentioned his friends were mean, and he wasn’t receiving water when he asked. Though the day care workers assured her things were OK, he was showing her he was not. In the end, Zarzynski moved him and his 1-year-old brother to Baby Fox.

“He was so excited when I told him that we were going back there, it was like a weight was lifted off of his shoulders,” Zarzynski said.

It was a relief as well for Zarzynski, who had been concerned about what her son’s sudden change of behavior could mean. She also felt safe knowing there would be more regulation of the facility.

“I love that she’s licensed,” Zarzynski said. “Honestly, it’s really nice to have an entity to hold a provider accountable if something happens. So I can call somebody and say, ‘Is this how it’s supposed to go? Is this what’s supposed to happen?’”

Zarzynski applied an online checklist to her search for child care but still feels like her search resulted in the wrong choice.

“I had a very thorough checklist and I researched online a lot and I still made the wrong decision,” Zarzynski said. “It’s really easy to be mistaken and think that somebody is kind and thorough, but if they’re not taking the proper steps to run their business as a licensed facility where they can be held accountable, then it makes you wonder why. Why don’t you get licensed?”

She now stresses the importance of not only asking if background checks and fingerprinting have been conducted but to see proof. It was also important for her to know she could access her children at any time and to be able to come in and breastfeed if she wanted.

Other issues not commonly considered in the search for child care include inquiring about the sick policy, the vaccination of any pets in the home, insurance and drug testing.

As a former school teacher, McCracken knows how important child care can be in a child’s life, and it’s therefore important to get right.

“Early childhood education is so important because 90% of a child’s brain is developed before they start kindergarten,” McCracken said. “All the research tells us that high-quality early childhood experiences in the first five years helps shape their brain development.”

McCracken’s Baby Fox Academy is currently full, but she still feels compelled to share proper child care practices with parents to make sure Maricopa’s children are in good hands.

“I can’t take every child in Maricopa — as much as I want to,” McCracken said. “It’s just not fathomable to be able to help every child. So I pride myself on helping other providers provide the best high-quality care even if they’re not licensed.”

McCracken hopes to fulfill her dream of operating a full-scale, play-based preschool next year with an expansion into a commercial space to accommodate up to 120 kids, all while maintaining the coziness of her home setting.

Resources for child care can be found at azccrr.com, and a child care checklist can be found here.

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MUSD announces more details on second high school, land purchase
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — An announcement from the Maricopa Unified School District shed new light on the plans for a second high school being built with State Facilities Board money. The school is scheduled to open in July 2022 and have the style of a career academy or small learning communities.

The land recently approved for purchase is approximately 80 acres and sits on the “Cortona” property on the southwest corner of Farrell and Murphy roads. The choice was made after careful consideration of location, proximity to infrastructure, accessibility, flood plains, overall space and price.

“The Cortona property is priced the best. It is not impacted by the flood plain and is in an area of our city that is predicted to see substantial growth,” MUSD Business Director Jacob Harmon said in a press release.

Phase 1 of building the new high school will consist of four modular academies or small learning communities that can be built upon as the school grows. Current estimates from the SFB put the capacity at 1,330 students which, when divided by the four modules, is 333 students per small learning community with a 1:25 teacher-student ratio.

The high school is described as open for easy monitoring of class activities and flexible for classroom space.

“We are committed to building a high school that maximizes every dollar in the first phase while providing an infrastructure set for expansion into future phases,” Superintendent Tracey Lopeman stated in a press release. “Programming will follow a similar path. We will identify foundational programs that will blossom into the career academies and learning communities that help shape young people into responsible citizens, great employees and wonderful neighbors right here in Maricopa.”

Phase 2 will help adjust the school’s capacity to grow in later years with the possibility of shuffling two academies into four buildings to adjust the blueprint and free up space for improvements.

The cost of Phase 1 is about $26 million, which will go toward the land purchase and initial construction. Any additional buildings or add-ons will have to be funded locally through bond measures.

“I am excited for the children in our city,” Governing Board President AnnaMarie Knorr said in the press release. “The additional high school will not only address overcrowding but will arrive with its own identity and focus. It is not meant to be a cookie cutter replication of Maricopa High School, this is about expanding opportunities. It is important to us that each school continues to develop its own unique culture and programming to meet the diverse needs and interests of all our scholars.”

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County appoints new MUSD board member
 ksawyer  / 

MARICOPA — A new board member was appointed to the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board on Wednesday following a previous board member’s resignation.

James Jordan was appointed by the Pinal County Superintendent of Schools Jill Broussard after Joshua Judd’s resignation March 11. Judd cited home and work life as the reasoning for his departure during his final meeting on the board. He was serving his first term on the board, which began in January 2017.

Jordan’s interest in the Maricopa school system initially peaked when his veteran brother began working with ROTC.

“I got to know the ROTC people started to get impressed with what they were doing and that started my real interest in the school system and I just decided I’d like to try to help. I found out they were doing some really great things, maybe we can do even greater things. So that’s my attitude, I’d like to see the school system in Maricopa become the best in the state.”

Jordan was a pastor for most of his career, but drove school buses and was involved in the school system through his sister and two daughters, all school teachers.

Jordan will serve the remainder of Judd’s term until Dec. 31 and the seat will be on the November ballot for the next four-year term.