Fixing School Siting: Round Two

Fixing School Siting: Round Two
The Sumner School District is one of five suing Pierce County over restrictions it imposed on new school siting, as the result of a 2012 state Growth Management Hearings Board ruling. Seen here: Bonney Lake High School, in the Sumner district. Photo: Pcs-structural.com.

Washington state lawmakers are again trying to help overcrowded school districts serve students with new facilities, which in some cases would have to be built on the rural side of so-called “urban growth boundaries,” in counties planning under the state Growth Management Act (GMA).

Right now, that’s not possible unless all students served are also from officially rural areas. But with growth boundary lines rendered increasingly moot by differing school district contours, and scarce land for new schools where planners prefer, the need for more classroom space in some districts is increasingly subject to mandated red tape.

The issue re-surfaced at a public hearing Thursday, January 12 of the House Environment Committee. HB 1017 would make school construction a top priority in local comprehensive plans developed under GMA, and exempt those new schools from many GMA provisions.

The bill stipulates that schools must be permitted under GMA in all land use zones. HB 1017 also shields new rurally-sited schools in GMA jurisdictions from state Growth Management Hearing Board rulings, which have recently stymied such efforts.

SB 6426, introduced last year, was somewhat more nuanced; it allowed new schools on rural GMA lands under certain conditions. With strong backing from school districts statewide, it cleared the Senate, but died in the House Local Government Committee without a hearing.

28 Sponsors For HB 1017

Bipartisan sponsors of the measure total a robust 28; the lead is Rep. Bob McCaslin (R-4). Democratic co-sponsors include Rep. Brian Blake (D-19), Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37), Rep. Christine Kilduff (D-28), and Rep. David Sawyer (D-29).

Local school officials say state growth hearings board rulings get in the way of building or expanding facilities, and that another challenge is the way that cities and counties enforce GMA through their comprehensive plans. Developable land inside the urban growth boundaries is often scarce, costly, or physically unbuildable even if it is officially classified as buildable.

“I have a school district that doesn’t have a way out of the mess that they’re in. We’re stuck. We need to have a legislative remedy,” said Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel at the January 12 hearing.

The district has struggled to find suitable land for a new high school after a 2012 hearings board ruling prohibited them from building on rural lands if some of the students are from urban areas.

Redrawing The Urban Growth Boundary

The urban growth boundary line has “no bearing or correlation with what the school district boundaries are,” said McCaslin.

Testifying to the Environment Committee, McCaslin said the bill seeks to site schools “where the students live,” particularly to benefit those who reside just inside or outside the growth boundary. He added that the bill would also allow districts to purchase cheaper properties on the “rural” side, versus more expensive “urban” parcels.

“School districts end up competing with private industries in my district, which unnecessarily increases the cost of land,” McCaslin said. “By being able to buy land that is less expensive, taxpayers benefit as a result.”

The sentiment was echoed by Patrick Connor, Washington director for the National Federation of Independent Business. He told the committee that the bill “allows smaller businesses to compete with school districts for the few remaining parcels of land in urban areas.”

Also voicing support for the bill was House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox (R-2). In a statement Friday, he said, “The Growth Management Act has frustrated many of us in rural communities for a long time,” and that HB 1017 “would return control to school districts, which would then be able to work with local authorities to permit new school construction projects. If we are truly serious about finding ways to have smaller class sizes in schools across our state, which we know benefits students and teachers alike, this bill should be supported.”

Change Of Venue

School district representatives aiming to lessen siting burdens were among those in a parade of testifiers last autumn at House Local Government Committee work sessions on proposed GMA reforms.

Local Government held two such sessions, and seemed to be steering its high profile GMA reform effort toward mediators at Washington State University’s Ruckelshaus Center. Changes on school siting were said to be one of the most attainable of myriad GMA reforms sought by local governments, schools, businesses, and property rights advocates.

However, in between then and the beginning of the 2017 session, Capitol sources say House leadership reassigned GMA oversight from Local Government to Environment.

Bill’s Top-Down Approach Draws Criticism

Committee Chair Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) expressed concern the bill would let schools be built on all types of land, and override local decision-making powers.

That issue was also raised by Woodville Mayor Bernie Talmas. He told committee members the bill would effectively take “the authority away from local elected officials” on land use, and give it to local school boards. “Local officials should have say over land use in their jurisdiction,” he said.

Talmas added that although rural land may be cheaper for school districts to buy, the purchase price doesn’t account for infrastructure improvements needed for some new schools in areas classified as rural.

Deciding Who Plans School District Growth

Committee member Rep. Jake Fey (D-27) said the bill as currently drafted might be a hard sell. Following Seigel’s testimony, Fey blamed Bethel School District’s predicament on what he described as poor long-term planning by the Pierce County Council. Fey also warned, “We need to be very careful in how this is crafted. The language here seems to be very broad and wide open in its scope.”

Charting a middle course on HB 1017 was Carl Schroeder, government relations advocate for the Association of Washington Cities. He recommended the bill select “limited circumstances” to allow schools outside the UGA, “where you have a demonstrated need.”

Nevertheless, districts such as Bethel cannot wait any longer for a solution, said Seigel. “The definitions of the lines drawn don’t reflect the realities we face,” he said.

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