Jones-Gordon School request approved by Paradise Valley Planning Commission

The Jones-Gordon School is in the process of going through the municipal process to move its school to the site of the former Tesseract School, at 4800 E. Doubletree Ranch Road. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

A few extra weeks to meet, discuss and resolve issues has proved to be fruitful for the Jones-Gordon School as its request moves through the inner-workings of the Town of Paradise Valley.

After asking the Planning Commission for a continuance to its June 20 request for a minor special use permit amendment, the Jones-Gordon School returned to Town Hall for a positive outcome.

Several residents, school officials, parents, students and Councilman Mark Stanton attended the Planning Commission’s evening meeting at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive, to voice their support.

Some who spoke felt compelled to explain their reasons for now supporting the school whereas they previously drew question to the proposal.

The Jones-Gordon School is a private school, aiming to offer curriculum for first through 12th grade. The school focuses on high-potential students with learning differences, and those who are considered twice exceptional.

It is seeking to relocate from 16641 N. 91st Street, suite 100, in Scottsdale to better serve its students, school officials say.

The seven-member volunteer team that makes up the Planning Commission, granted the continuance on June 20, before ultimately approving the SUP on July 11 with a 6-0 vote, with Commissioner Richard Mahrle absent.

The Planning Commission also voted 5-1 to deem the requested amendment for the Jones-Gordon School as a minor amendment, with Commissioner Thomas Campbell dissenting.

Mr. Campbell cited adding high school curriculum as a change-in-use to the permit.

“Expanding to the high school is a change in use,” Commissioner Campbell said during the public hearing of his position.

“I think we as appointed officials, who have a constituency of seven, it’s not appropriate of us to make this change. I feel it is Town Council’s purview, who has the constituency of the entire town. I’m going to be in a unique situation of not advocating for the minor, but advocating for the application, but that’s how I feel about it with my background with the town and my experience actually crafting the ordinance.”

The SUP request is for a minor amendment to allow first through 12th grade, instead of the allotted 340 pre-kindergarten through eighth grade allowance granted for the Tesseract School. Many neighbor and resident concerns included the amount of high school students who would be allowed to drive to school. In April, the Tesseract School announced its plans to relocate to the city of Phoenix.

Additionally the school has been approved to install two new non-illuminated wall signs.

The application will go before Town Council, following a 15-day window to appeal.

The campus holds an outdoor recreational area for young children. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Finding a resolution

Paradise Valley Senior Planner Paul Michaud presented the case to the Planning Commission, citing a number of changes made in a short time.

“A lot has happened — a lot of neighbors have gotten together with the applicant and working together,” he explained July 11. “There were draft stipulations that were discussed at that last work study session and there’s been many edits to that since that date.”

Some edits made to the town application include existing exterior light fixtures, an operational plan, a cap of 160 students if there all 12 grades taught, and a special events noticing provision, Mr. Michaud said.

Representing the applicant is Paradise Valley resident and Zoning Attorney John Berry who says they are in a very different position today than they were just a few weeks ago.

“Three weeks ago this room was filled with — you could feel the anger, it was palpable,” Mr. Berry said.

“We understand people feel very strongly about their neighborhood and their homes, particularly those who share a boundary with this school.”

Mr. Berry says the June 20 meeting allowed his clients and some of the neighbors to come face-to-face for the first time. A community meeting was held shortly after, and Councilman Stanton was among the attendees.

“Councilman Mark Stanton attended that first neighborhood meeting we had, and he sat quietly in the back and observed,” he said. “After that meeting was over, he met with some of the neighbors there and met with ourselves. At that first meeting, we made a lot of progress.”

A second meeting was later organized by Councilman Stanton, who wanted to continue building on some of the ideas presented by neighbors.

“At that second meeting, I think it was an hour and a half, two hours, that was a long meeting and Councilman Stanton lead that meeting,” Mr. Berry said.

Ultimately, a resolution was found to cap a first grade through 12th grade population at 160 students, or cap a kindergarten through eighth grade population at 340 students. Additionally, there may only be a total of 60 ninth-12th grade students, and a limit of 20 student drivers.

Every driving-aged student and their parents must sign a contract, with a requirement for a 3.0 GPA, vehicles registered with the school and the prohibition of off-site parking.

Normal school hours are set to be 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Edits and stipulations to the SUP were still being made that afternoon, Mr. Berry noted.

School activity

The Jones-Gordon School, originally called On-Track Academy, was founded in 2010 by Head of School Dana Herzberg.

Dana Herzberg

Ms. Herzberg says her passion is for education, and holds degrees in special education and curriculum and instruction, according to the Jones-Gordon School website.

She presented the Planning Commission and local residents an overview of the school’s operation, a task she had been asked to recite to neighbors and make into an operational plan to be included in the SUP.

“We translated this into the operational plan that’s part of the stipulations, it runs with the land, not with Dana,” Mr. Berry explained.

Ms. Herzberg says since the school opened, she has been treating the students as part of her family. Her drop-off and dismissal procedure includes a staggered drop-off plan for elementary, middle and high school grades.

“We walk our kids to the cars when they leave in the afternoon and pick them up from their cars when they arrive,” Ms. Herzberg explained.

“And as I explained to the neighbors the other day, the reason is simple, we’re a family and it’s our community. We want to welcome them to the school when they come for the day. When they leave for the afternoon we want to see that quite frankly they’re getting in the right vehicles and that we know who’s picking them up.”

Ms. Herzberg says regardless of their age, the students are their responsibility. She also noted that the school’s sports will not interrupt the neighbors.

In the Scottsdale office building the school has been in, there is only indoor recreation space and they transport their students to play sports.

“We had to have a plan ‘B’ for all of our sports, we put our kids in vans and shuttle them to parks or recreation facilities — that’s not new to us,” Ms. Herzberg said.

“The fields at Tesseract are not big enough for the sports that we do — we are not going to hot games, we work with other schools and other parks where we host our sports events.”

News Services Editor Melissa Rosequist can be reached by e-mail at mrosequist@newszap.com or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Mrosequist_

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