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Divided Maricopa school board approves September dates for in-person return

MARICOPA — After months of deliberation, numerous polls of parents and teachers and a lot of executive orders, Maricopa Unified School District has elected to go back to school in person, with students in grades K-5 returning by Sept. 14 and grades 6-12 by Sept. 21.

With Pinal County now meeting all three benchmarks for reopening, school districts are free to set dates for reopening.

The move came after an impassioned and, at times, contentious special board meeting Thursday night with board members Ben Owens and Torri Anderson voting against the move in favor of staying closed until fall break for older students.

The meeting opened with a lengthy call to the public, with many parents and teachers voicing their opinions to the board.

Some simply wrote in three words, “open the schools,” while others made emotional pleas for their children’s mental health and declining grades.

“Our students are not doing well in this environment. They are not able to do their assignments,” one in-person parent said. “We need these kids back, and we need to find a way to get that high school up and running even before the elementary schools because these kids cannot survive as juniors and seniors this way.”

Still others praised the dedication of the teachers and staff, and expressed gratitude to MUSD for their commitment to following scientific data.

“MUSD is a family, and I want to thank you for consistently doing what’s best for our family of teachers, staff and students. In the absence of real state leadership, you have provided this community with smart decision making based on science and the metrics,” said one MUSD teacher in a letter. “The fact that most families in this district have chosen to continue their education online speaks volumes.”

Data from a parent survey Aug. 24 validates that statement, with 53% of elementary school parents indicating they wanted to remain online and 56% of middle school parents saying the same. At the high school level, 41% indicated they wanted to remain online, with the inclusion of a large number of “no responses” in the in-person category.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the response, but a little shocked. We thought we were going to have 750-1,000 students (online), which would have been sort of a patchwork operation,” said Superintendent Tracey Lopeman. “It was a credit to the teachers … it was their work that gave parents the confidence to remain in an online setting when given the choice.”

Some teachers were similarly reluctant to return to in-person learning, 164 indicating they would prefer to remain online citing “serious needs.”

Learning labs will continue with full-day schedules regardless of the board’s Thursday night vote, allowing students to return to schools on September 8 as originally stated. Busing will be available to students K-12, and breakfast and lunch is offered at normal pricing. Students attending the learning labs will be supervised by an adult while they complete online school work in a “study hall” environment.

Board president AnnaMarie Knorr said, to clarify, “On Tuesday, your kid can get on a bus, and they can go to school.”

Though the board was in agreement about returning to in-person learning for K-5 on Sept. 14 — voting unanimously to approve the measure — they were much less united for older students.

Board Member Patti Coutre was adamant that 6-12 students be put back in school as soon as possible.

“I still think that Oct. 13 date is unacceptable,” said Coutre. “We’re now at the point where I believe we have really put forth a really good mitigation plan, we have put forth all the safety efforts that we can possibly put through to minimize exposure for staff, students and their families. I think that we are doing an injustice to those students who are not doing well online.”

But bumping up the back to school date for middle and high schoolers is no small feat. Lopeman estimated the master scheduling process to take at the very least three weeks, and two principals in attendance echoed the pressure this would put on teachers and staff.

The superintendent explained that, without the extra time buffer, there could be a large margin of error in the final result, calling it a “trade off.”

Anderson also voiced the concern that teachers would need to input grades twice, once for online and once in person, if they were to go back to school before the end of the first quarter.

Maricopa High School Principal Deana McNamee was among the two principals to address the board.

“Teachers are taking on more preps and they are also teaching classes that they haven’t taught before,” McNamee said. “More time would be great for them to plan and prepare for courses they haven’t taught before. Typically, teachers take a whole summer to prepare for the coursework that they’re going to be teaching.”

She went on to add that it would be nice to award teachers the opportunity to produce quality material for the students. McNamee also addressed Coutre’s suggestions of opening mid-week, saying it would be impossible to schedule 2,500 students overnight.

“To do that over a weekend is a challenge. If we’re coming back on the 14th, or the 21st or the 28th, we’re still looking at a weekend to make that happen,” she said. “Is it doable? We’ll do it if that’s what the decision is, but there will be some errors, some gaps, some holes in schedules, students probably placed in the wrong course.”

She went on to endorse the Oct. 13 start date, saying “having that week over that fall break is what is really essential to make sure that we have the time to make those schedule changes and do it well.”

In response, Coutre said, “I totally understand… but we have students that are failing.”

Anderson made a motion to approve the Oct. 13 start date, and Owens seconded it. The motion failed 3-2.

Coutre made the second motion to return to in-person schooling Sept. 21, and Owens interjected with a final comment before casting his dissenting vote.

“The community must understand what Dr. Lopeman said, this is a trade off,” Owens said. “If we go back on the 21st—”

“It’s going to be a mess,” Anderson finished for him.

“The community, our parents and our students, must be patient with our administration,” Owens said.

The board voted to approve the earlier start date of September 21 by a vote of 3-2, with board members Jim Jordan, Knorr and Coutre in agreement. Anderson maintained her stance, calling the vote an injustice to the teachers of MUSD.

“I’m not willing to take that trade off, I think it’s a disservice to our staff. I think it’s rude,” Anderson said. “We’re not education professionals, our administrators are. They’re giving us the date of the 13th so that we can start with excellence. It’s going to be a mess.”

Knorr also acknowledged teachers and their dedication to their students, but she said she was firm on her belief that staff will figure it out before casting her yes vote.

“At the end of the day, they went into teaching to teach students,” Knorr said. “They’re gonna be willing to put their boots on and make it work.”

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Head-on collision shuts down Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway

MARICOPA — A head-on collision early Friday morning on Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway left one vehicle dangling off the right-hand side and the driver unconscious.

The accident happened just after 6 a.m. when a red hatchback crossed over the center line for an unknown reason and struck an oncoming gray car head on. After impact, the red car hung off a side barricade, and the driver was in and out of consciousness.

“We aren’t ruling out impairment but this will probably be determined with a blood test,” said Maricopa Police Department spokesman Ricardo Alvarado.

The driver of the red car was transported to a Valley hospital for treatment. The driver of the gray vehicle was not transported and the person’s condition was unknown.

The road reopened again at 9:30 a.m.

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Maricopa real estate agent discovers love of making own fiery hot sauce

MARICOPA — Brian Petersheim has harbored a love of hot sauce since his first experience with the spicy stuff. At 10 years old, Petersheim saw a commercial for Tabasco hot sauce that dared the watcher to test their heat tolerance and eat a whole capful.

Petersheim, being the daredevil he was, went straight into the kitchen and poured himself a cap. With the hot, peppery taste still on his tongue, he knew he had found a passion.

“I was blown away. It was the hottest thing I’d ever had at that time,” he said.

Flash forward a few decades, and his wife, Suzanne, still regularly reprimands him for his large collection of hot sauces occupying space on their kitchen table.

Originally from the East Coast, Petersheim came to Maricopa in 2006 after his business in Mississippi was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He now works with HomeSmart as a real estate agent, and he and his wife are busy raising their two kids, Haley and Brian Jr.

Though at first frustrated with his hobby, Suzanne has since indulged Petersheim and purchased his first hot sauce making kit two years ago. The next step was researching how to make his ideal hot sauce, straying from his first love of Tabasco.

“I’ve just kind of graduated from (Tabasco),” Petersheim said. “I still eat Tabasco when I go to restaurants, but it’s only because that’s kind of all that they have. So I wanted to take the next step.”

For Petersheim, that meant placing an order for $50 worth of Carolina reapers.

Anyone in the hot sauce community knows the mouth-melting pepper comes in at No. 1 in the world for spice level at 2 million Scoville units and is guaranteed to make almost any heat lover’s eyes water. Though originally developed by Ed Currie of South Carolina, the strain of pepper has now been commercialized, and Petersheim picked his peppers in Pennsylvania.

He’s made six batches of hot sauce so far and calls it about an 8.5 out of 10 on the spice scale.

“It’s less finesse and more brute force,” Petersheim joked. “That’s why I say it’s maybe an additive for a lot of people, it’s just so strong. It’s like grain alcohol, you’d rather make jungle juice with it than drink it straight.

“My wife won’t touch it,” he added. “Everybody’s different. I would say, if you put a couple drops in a bowl of salsa or a Bloody Mary, it would take it from a two to a seven really quickly.”

His son Brian Jr. is similarly wary of the sauce but still stops by the kitchen to see what Petersheim is cooking up and occasionally helps his dad out.

Petersheim’s latest batch included yellow, red and chocolate varieties of the reaper as well as some other interesting ingredients he’s picked up over the years. He tosses in some diced tomatoes, garlic and onion along with the reapers and adds in cilantro, lime juice, vinegar and even mandarine oranges for flavor. Still, he wouldn’t liken it to other hot sauces found on a dinner table.

“Tabasco and Cholula — they have those nice tastes,” Petersheim said. “I mean, this just makes your head sweat.”

But some of his friends enjoy the fire. Petersheim said he has a friend working out on the Dakota Pipeline who preorders several bottles from him every batch, which he says is just enough to “keep him going for the next several months.” Petersheim even joined the Phoenix Hot Sauce Club, a group dedicated to heat-enthusiasts who meet to discuss the latest sauces and compare recipes.

All of his batches follow a college nickname he was given, “Daddy Dog,” and Petersheim’s latest batch is no different. “Daddy Dog’s COVID Cure” is a clever play off research that shows COVID-19 virus dies at hot temperatures.

He recently ran a giveaway on his Facebook page. Though he is not selling the hot sauce outright, the bottles all have an advertisement for his realty business and he gives them out to home buyers and friends and family.

“My past clients that have bought or sold a house with me, I’ve given them carte blanche. You know, you get a bottle whenever you want and you just need to let me know that you’re out or you’re low,” he said. “That way my phone number will never be too far away from them.”

Petersheim does have a food handler card, but his labeling — while informative of his realty business — does not meet the criteria for selling the bottles at this time. It doesn’t stop him from handing out free bottles of the fiery sauce though, or clients from tasting the flame for themselves. Either way, Petersheim says it’s a win-win.

“I figure if you’re going to get a free bottle of hot sauce, you’re stuck looking at my mug while it’s on your kitchen table,” Petersheim said. “Also I get to meet people that have some same interests as me, because when they pull up to my house and they say, ‘I’m here to pick up the hot sauce,’ it’s a good conversation.”

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Sprouts finds home in Maricopa's Sonoran Creek Marketplace

MARICOPA — It’s been nearly a year since Mayor Christian Price teased residents with a specialty grocery store at his 2019 State of the City address, and many community members at the event guessed Price meant Sprouts would be opening a new location soon.

Though a lot has changed in the last year, Sprouts has continued on its trajectory toward opening, and the developer finally announced the news on its website, including plans for the development.

The Sprouts will be part of the Sonoran Creek Marketplace development near John Wayne Parkway and West Edison Road and will serve as the primary grocery store for the complex. The Sonoran Creek property is about 86,000 square feet, or 7.84 acres, and is predicted to create more than 280 new jobs for the city with a payroll around $10.4 million annually.

Sprouts has confirmed its placement in the development, and Phoenix Commercial Advisors have put a call out for other tenants to join in the space. The remaining properties vary in size between 1,400 to 5,000 square feet with another large retail space next to Sprouts and some smaller properties in the same center.

The description of the property reads: “New neighborhood shopping center, delivering 3rd quarter 2021. 805 homes under construction (2019). 1,959 improved, shovel ready lots (2019). ±50,000 residents starved for quality restaurant options. Signalized intersection off of John Wayne Pkwy. New 347 overpass now complete!”

The Sprouts will join the already existing Culver’s and Dutch Bros Coffee and is scheduled to be open in the third quarter of 2021.