MARICOPA — School performance, health care and even water-hogging trees were topics of discussion in a sometimes heated meeting between state legislators and Maricopa city leaders.
Legislative District 11’s Sen. Vince Leach and Reps. Mark Finchem and Bret Roberts met with the Maricopa City Council and mayor Tuesday night to discuss town issues. The officials gathered for dinner and a casual, post-dinner conversation in the evening in the executive conference room of City Hall.
In attendance were Mayor Christian Price, Vice Mayor Henry Wade and Maricopa City Council members Nancy Smith, Rich Vitiello, Marvin Brown and Vincent Manfredi. Also in attendance were City Manager Rick Horst and other city officials.
First on the topic of discussion was the Maricopa Unified School District bond election, which was voted down on Nov. 5. The subject was broached by Councilwoman Nancy Smith, who voiced her concerns that the $26 million allocated by the state School Facilities Board would not be enough to build more than a very basic, starter high school.
Smith gave an example of a high school in Gilbert that was created to be a starter school.
“When it first started out and started school (it) really wasn’t all that successful and the children that attended in the first few years really paid the price,” Smith said. “I know a lot of us are conservative financially and we think, ‘Why can’t they live within their budget and why can’t they save that money to build that high school?’ (But) let’s say they save $1 million a year, it would take somewhere between 30 and 50 years to save.”
She continued that despite the needs of the community, she sees many residents who are “tax weary,” or averse to raises in taxes overall and not just in relation to funding public schools.
Finchem responded by naming other schools currently scheduled to be built, and reminded council members not to underestimate the costs associated with building a school.
“These are not small endeavors. This is like building, forgive the reference, but it’s like building a factory. It’s not just a structure,” Finchem said.
He stated he believes school bond proposals like this fail due to community members’ concerns over the performance of the schools currently.
“When you have kids that are being graduated with diplomas that show at 30% math competency...,” Finchem said.
“What does that mean?” Wade responded.
“It means that they basically got an F in math, but they were graduated anyhow into the workforce,” Finchem replied. “So we’re not suggesting … well, actually there is a performance problem. Now, where that performance problem lies — I’m not making a judgment on that. It could be parental involvement, it could be the facilities, it could be the students themselves.”
In an interview following the dinner, Leach concurred with Finchem’s point.
“I think the passing of a bond, whether it passes or does not pass, is more a reflection on how the general public feels about the school system at that given time,” Leach said. “Now that I’ve thought about it just for a second, I almost think the lower the income the more people want to have better schools because everybody wants something better for their children.”
Leach added that, as a taxpayer, he would look at the ratings for schools in a given district and how proficient a district is at disbursing the funds they are currently given to determine if he would vote for the bond.
“You look at, first of all, if they’re an A, B, C, D or F school, and then you also have to look at — we have schools that could (get) B ratings or C ratings, yet they only have 30 to 40% of the kids that are proficient in math, or in reading, or in science,” Leach said.
Leach also voiced his concerns over wildfires — quoting a study from 2017 that listed 350,000 acres of forest burned — and the consumption of water in relation to the fires. Finchem continued that point by taking issue with the number of trees in wooded areas.
“Want to talk about a water problem? OK, so instead of having a thousand stems per acre, our forest should have a hundred stems per acre. That means 900 trees sucking the guts out of the water,” Finchem said. “Now, whenever you hear from the far left, radical, I’m not even sure what to call them…”
“Citizens,” Wade added.
“They’re citizens, but they have a very skewed view of the world that we have to preserve every tree,” Finchem said.
Other issues that were discussed between the legislators and city officials included talks of a State Route 347 overpass at Riggs Road, charging ports for electric cars, the legalization of recreational marijuana, and prison and criminal justice reform.
Roberts spoke about his own campaign to grant former felons a “certificate of eligibility” through a portion of a statute that currently exists. Roberts explained this would be a certificate approved by a court proving the felon is reformed.
This would add an additional box to check when filling out an application for a job, as opposed to a similar campaign called Ban the Box, which is pushing to end employers’ ability to ask if the applicant has a criminal record.
“Instead of Ban the Box, I want to add a box,” Roberts said.
On the discussion of fires, Price stated his concerns over health care coverage for firefighters with cancer and how to implement a bill that would both offer coverage and not become a financial burden to the city. Horst agreed and stated his city’s public works employees deal with the same issues as they often handle harmful, cancer-causing materials.
The meeting ended with legislators encouraging city officials to reach out and get into contact with them. However, Finchem also took the time to discuss how previous contacts between city government had made him feel.
“If you are contemplating sending out a wide-area email, before you push the send button, do us the courtesy of a phone call. I think you know what I’m talking about,” Finchem said. “That did not go over very well and that, quite frankly, did a lot to damage to relationships and things that we were working very hard on. You kind of throw your hands up and say, ‘What the hell? All right, I’ll just go do something else where it can be appreciated.’ So we’re your partners. We’re not your competitors. We’re not the enemy. We are the appropriating authority that has to make a decision about where we’re going to send limited resources.”