Pierce Schools Take Aim At Growth Rule

Pierce Schools Take Aim At Growth Rule
School districts in Pierce County have taken action to challenge growth restrictions which they say make it harder to serve students. Expect the issue to surface again in the state legislature, in 2017. Seen here: Stadium High School, Tacoma. Photo: FlyTacoma.

Five school districts have filed a lawsuit against Pierce County to get around a state Growth Management Hearings Board ruling. They say it deprives students of equal access to education under the state Constitution.

The suit challenges a county ordinance passed in June to comply with a 2012 hearings board ruling. It prohibited districts from building new schools in rural areas if some of the students reside in urban areas.

The districts suing the county are Bethel, Franklin Pierce, Sumner, Tacoma and Eatonville.

Other districts have voiced similar concerns. Lens reported in February that superintendents told state lawmakers the application of the Washington state Growth Management Act (GMA) prevents them from developing new schools where they’re needed, and where cheaper land is available. Land that is sometimes just outside of so-called urban growth areas (UGAs), where growth is funneled under the Act.

GMA became law in 1990 and sets the template for the state hearings board, counties and cities on many land use decisions.

Proposed 2016 Bill Had A Fix

School chiefs from Bethel, Richland and Spokane testified in support of SB6426. It would have let new schools be built in rural areas if there are no feasible locations inside UGAs. The bill passed in the Senate but failed to get a House floor vote. However, one state lawmaker says they’re going to try again in 2017.

The new lawsuit claims GMA restrictions “deprive the county’s school-age children of their right to a basic education” by unreasonably foreclosing options to build new schools needed to meet growing student populations.

For many districts, there’s often no room to build new facilities within the UGA. Yet they’re prohibited from constructing on available land in rural areas near growing populations if the students that would attend the facility currently reside in urban areas, or might do so in the future.

Bethel District Stymied

In the Bethel School District, the county ordinance has stymied plans for a fourth high school to be located on an 80-acre parcel located just across the urban growth boundary. It would serve a mix of rural and urban students. The district anticipates 3,000 more students over 10 years.

Unless the 2012 hearings board ruling is overturned, the school district will be forced to either increase class sizes or do year-round schooling. Eminent domain to acquire new property is technically an option, but the move is not considered politically viable.

Pierce County County Executive Pat McCarthy declined to comment on the lawsuit due to pending review by attorneys. Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel told Lens the county has been supportive of the district’s efforts to build new facilities but has had its hands tied due to the state hearings board ruling.

The true purpose of the legal move by the districts is to get their case heard by a “real court,” said Seigel. Because GMA doesn’t specifically discuss schools, he believes the state hearings board ruling was based on an “ideological” agenda rather than actual law or facts.

‘Somebody Made A Mark On A Map’

Seigel also views the county’s urban boundary as “arbitrary.” He added, “Somebody made a mark on the map, and now we’re living with the consequences,” he said.

In a recent Facebook post on the suit, State Sen. Bruce Dammeier (R-24) said, “This is a problem…we have an un-elected government board bullying Pierce County to pass an ordinance that hurts our local schools’ ability to prepare our children for the future. More narrowly, five of our school districts are spending taxpayer money to sue Pierce County, which will use taxpayer money to defend the suit. There is a better way!” Dammeier is running for Pierce County Executive this November.

Rep. David Taylor (R-15) is a ranking member of the House Committee on Local Government. Last year he introduced the bipartisan measure HB2377, aiming to “ensure that schools can be built in the communities they serve.” It failed to clear the Local Government Committee after an initial hearing.

In a Facebook commentary about the recent court challenge, Rep. Matt Manweller (R-13), said he has “usually opposed legislation through litigation, but this is a good lawsuit. Rep. David Taylor had a great bill to allow schools to build outside the UGAs. It would lower bonds costs, reduce class sizes and help school districts.”

In February testimony on the similar Senate bill, the environmental group Futurewise and other staunch GMA supporters urged lawmakers to maintain the status quo in order to preserve farmland and limit outward growth.

2017 Legislation On The Horizon

Taylor told Lens the lawsuit “is just a great example of a no-win situation” for the county and the school districts. He and other lawmakers plan to introduce new legislation in 2017 to grant more local autonomy on land use for public facilities.

“The game has changed completely, and in fact the stadium has changed completely,” Taylor said. “Counties and schools districts and cities need to have the flexibility to meet the needs of their communities.”

Taylor said not only does the GMA need to be revised, the authority of the hearing board needs to be curtailed. He called it “an unelected bureaucratic board that answers to no one but the governor.”

Rather than act as mediators settling disputes, the hearing board is now “a quasi-judicial board that renders a decision” forcing cities and counties to “either waste more taxpayer money fighting it” or swallow it and “move on,” he added.

Like many superintendents, Seigel has supported legislation revising GMA.

“Unintended consequences need to be revisited and damage needs to be addressed,” Seigel said. “Kids are coming and we don’t have a place to build a school for them,” he said.

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