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School Plans May Forcibly Evict Families
by J. H. Huebert

East Valley Tribune (Phoenix, Arizona)
October 4, 2002

This fall, 106 homes and apartments in a Chandler neighborhood may be demolished and the families who live in them forced to seek shelter elsewhere. Who will decide whether these families will get to keep the homes they’ve lived in for years? You will, in part, if you’re a Chandler voter.

These homes are in danger because Chandler High School wants to expand its facilities to add things like new baseball fields, a swimming pool and an industrial arts compound. To pay for all that, the school board members want Chandler voters to approve a ballot measure this fall that would authorize $60 million in bonds, including $10 million to take the neighborhood homeowners’ property. If the ballot initiative passes and local property owners won’t sell their homes voluntarily, the school district can physically force them out by exercising the power of eminent domain.

If the school wants all of the neighboring land, it will have to do just that because some neighborhood families don’t want to go. Many in this older, Hispanic neighborhood have invested years of their lives in improving their houses, only to now face the prospect of watching a bulldozer push their dreams into a heap of rubble. “I would fight this if there was a way,” said neighborhood resident Mary Ramon. “But they keep telling us it’s a done deal—it’s tough luck.” 

If the school board members and Chandler voters think that it’s better to bulldoze these homes and the families who live in them to build fancy new school facilities, they can have their way. Courts allow government entities to condemn and take private property when it serves a “public purpose,” and for many years this has legally included property to be used for public school grounds.

But even though it’s legal, is forcibly taking neighborhood families’ homes the right thing to do? Not unless there’s one standard of morality for school districts and another for the rest of us. What if you wanted a new ball field and swimming pool, but didn’t have room on your land, and you decided to push over your neighbor’s house and build them there? You’d be called a criminal. But the politically privileged school district is poised to get away with this very thing.

Some might argue that it’s OK because the homeowners will get a fair deal, because both the Arizona and U.S. constitutions require that property owners receive “just compensation” for their losses. That may be better than nothing, but whatever a court says is “just” will still be less than the property is worth to the homeowners. Why? Because if the “just” amount were really the market value, the school wouldn’t have to use the power of eminent domain to force anyone to do what it wants. The true value of anything can only be determined at the moment a willing buyer and a willing seller voluntarily agree on a price and execute a voluntary contract. 

Private parties can’t force you to sell your house just because they’re willing to pay you what an appraiser says it’s worth—they have to pay what you say it’s worth. Otherwise, they’re stealing. Unfortunately, a school district doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of us, so if it wants to take people’s homes and name its own price, it can do so.

One has to wonder whether the school board would have proposed such a scheme if the victims were well-to-do families with million-dollar homes instead of families of modest means who are politically powerless and mostly Hispanic? What will it say about Chandler if an elitist school board and a mostly white electorate gang up on these Hispanic families and tear down their houses? 

School areas should be safe for both children and their parents, without neighboring families having to fear losing their homes. Better facilities for schools may be a good thing, but Chandler High School should find a way to build them without harming 106 families in the community it exists to serve, even if it follows the letter of the law.

Appeared as "Chandler High May Displace Families," East Valley Tribune, October 4, 2002.


© 2002 J. H. Huebert