MUSD board member opposes high school site after family tract passed over

Torri Anderson

Maricopa Unified School District board member Torri Anderson and her husband, owners of family property passed over for the site of a new high school, are opposing the selected location, according to district records obtained in a public records request.

The governing board’s land-selection committee looked at 12 locations for its second high school before settling on the Cortona property, the lowest-priced of the bunch at $45,000 per acre. The district has been working to complete its purchase of the property from the Emmerson family. The 80-acre parcel is on the southwest corner of Murphy and Farrell roads in east Maricopa.

MUSD is seeking to buy the Cortona property from the Emmerson family’s Maricopa 240 investment LLC.

A progress update is scheduled for the Wednesday meeting of the MUSD Governing Board. According to the agenda, the presentation will include a due diligence checklist and next steps, land application to the School Facilities Board and progress of building design development. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.

In April, after looking over the recommendations of the land-selection committee, the board chose the Cortona property during an executive (closed) session. Torri Anderson recused herself from that e-session because property owned by her family’s business, Anderson Palmisano Farms, was in the running for the selection, which would have created a conflict of interest.

During the land hunt, Anderson’s husband, Kelly, and a broker spoke with MUSD, according to district records. Anderson Palmisano Farms has 640 acres under an option agreement with a developer, and MUSD was told the family would sell 40-80 acres on Bowlin Road at a cost of $55,000 per acre.

MUSD noted in its spreadsheet of the investigated properties that the Anderson parcel “would require significant offsite improvements to get to the site.”

A third “finalist” had up to 60 acres available for $60,000 per acre.

Down to just three members at that time – AnnaMarie Knorr, Ben Owens and Patti Coutré – with Anderson recused and an unfilled seat after the resignation of Joshua Judd, the district board voted to select the Cortona property.

Owned by the Emmersons’ investment LLC, Maricopa 240, the Cortona property lies just south of Anderson Palmisano Farms. Both farms are on a section of Murphy Road adjacent to the Volkswagen test facility property.

Owners of property within a quarter-mile of the site and zoned agricultural were notified of the potential purchase and were asked to sign a pesticide covenant.

May 11, Torri Anderson emailed Superintendent Tracey Lopeman, asking what the district had heard from surrounding property owners. “It is a VERY active agricultural area. As a property owner we have not received any notification. When did you send this notice out?”

She also brought up the proximity of power lines and the Casa Grande High School boundary. “Too many concerns,” she signed off.

“Not too many concerns at all,” Lopeman responded.

May 19, Kelly Anderson wrote to the MUSD Governing Board stating the Anderson Palmisano Farms partnership “voted not to consider any type of sale to the district.”

More importantly, the letter stated the Andersons’ opposition to the Cortona property selection.

“We feel this site is not in the best interest of the district, the city, Volkswagen test facility and the surrounding farmers,” Kelly Anderson wrote. “On behalf of our family farm, I strongly oppose this location.”

(According to the district, as of Tuesday the Andersons were the only adjacent property owners to express opposition. One individual has also gone on record opposed to the site.)

In the letter, Kelly Anderson said he had no contact with the district after the intended purchase was publicly announced and therefore had no opportunity to discuss the impact that the prospective school’s location might have on his farm.

The “letter of protest” was discussed by the board in e-session May 27.

With the Anderson family removing its farm from consideration, Torri Anderson became vocal publicly about her disdain for the selected property.

“I’m extremely concerned with the location, with all of it,” she said during the open portion of the May 27 meeting. “I just think that there’s a lot of problems that are going to come with this.”

Torri Anderson long had concerns about the process in place, even before the land search started in March. Last fall, in email correspondence with Lopeman, she had questioned the timeline and proposal/bid process, saying the order was “confusing and not in alignment with state practice, as I understand it.”

“I guarantee, nothing I do will pose a legal challenge for the board, the district, or myself as a professional, as your superintendent,” Lopeman wrote back in part of her response. “Our timeline and scale are impacted by the failure of the bond, but our professional standards and commitment to making decisions on a full set of factual information remains the same. I am your partner and I am the Board’s Chief Executive. This is important, and I will handle it with the utmost care.”

June 5, Lopeman sent an email to board members detailing more questions put to her by Torri Anderson about the land-selection process during a June 1 conversation between the superintendent and the board member.

Those questions included what other property was considered, who made the recommendation, and what questions were asked by the board. To the latter, Lopeman noted that the board questions were asked in e-session and “may not be shared outside that setting.”

Aug. 11, Torri Anderson was still uncomfortable with discussions about the Cortona property.

“What if I’m not in favor of putting more money into this project?” she asked Lopeman in an email exchange. “I know it will be an extremely costly piece of property to develop, more than we can afford. I don’t think it is wise to develop this piece of property for the high school.”

A day later, at an Aug. 12 meeting, she enlisted the public in her campaign, encouraging anyone who opposed the Cortona property to contact the board as soon as possible.