Fixing School Siting: Round Three

As school districts throughout the state struggle to find suitable property for new facilities, many are resorting to portables to provide new classrooms. SB 5945 seeks to address this by allowing them to build outside of the urban growth area, which is currently prohibited by the state Growth Management Act. Photo: PBS

State lawmakers are taking a second crack at a statewide problem school districts face while looking for appropriate sites for new facilities after Governor Jay Inslee partially vetoed related legislation approved during the regular session.

The proposed remedy, SB 5945, would allow counties to site schools for urban students outside the urban growth area (UGA), but it also contains several provisions its backers hope will placate Inslee this time around.

Testimony provided by bill proponents and critics at a Monday, June 12 public hearing of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee indicates the bill may be able to obtain the governor’s signature if compromise is reached on the bill’s language regarding utility extensions for the school facilities.

The bill is similar to ESHB 1017, parts of which Inslee vetoed so that it only applied to the Bethel School District in Pierce County. Bethel has struggled to find suitable property within the UGA for a new high school after a 2012 growth hearings board ruling forbade them from siting it on a rural parcel.

However, districts throughout the state in cities such as Pasco and Richland are also facing similar dilemmas as they try to identify appropriate locations for new schools. Last year, the Moses Lake School Board voted to sell off a 152-acre property it had purchased for $1.9 million when it was unable to have the public sewer extended to the property because it fell outside the UGA.

SB 5945’s primary sponsor, Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25), is chair of the Early Learning and K-12 Committee. In a statement, he said that “Washington is one of the fastest growing states in the country and the cost and availability of land within existing boundaries presents significant challenges for some school districts. We must be able to provide the classrooms necessary to educate all of our students not only now, but well into the future.”

The bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Dean Takko (D-19), Mark Miloscia (R-30) and Steve Conway (D-29).

Districts in regions with booming real estate markets are also in a pinch. According to a 2015 report by the Legislative Task Force on School Siting, urban property within the Issaquah School District costs 10-20 times more than land located outside the UGA.

For other districts such as Everett, where the local district is expected to grow by 1600 students in the next 10 years, the bill “would clarify what we believe is a real challenge for us in terms of where to site schools,” Michael Gunn, executive director of Facilities and Operations for Everett Public Schools, told lawmakers.

He added that the bill would enable the school district’s new rural facilities to obtain public sewer access, as the buildings currently rely on on-site septic systems.

Unlike ESHB 1017, Zeiger’s bill requires these facilities to be built within two miles of the urban growth boundary. At the June 12 public hearing, he told colleagues that “we’re placing a pretty significant restriction here” to address criticism Inslee might have.

However, Inslee’s Senior Education Policy Advisor Deb Merle told lawmakers at the hearing that the governor’s “concerns have been related to the size and scope of the utilities that are taken to the new school, and that the area around the school needs to maintain its rural character.”

“Governor Inslee will not sign a bill that opens that door” for housing near the schools, she added. “The utilities that are extended to the school should never be any bigger than what the school needs then and in the future.”

Futurewise State Policy Director Bryce Yadon told committee members the bill should require an objective analysis to determine that no urban sites are feasible for a school facility before allowing it to be built on rural land. That analysis should also determine how much property the facility truly needs, he added.

Like Merle, he expressed apprehension about allowing utility extensions.

“The pressure to continue to build out to fully satisfy the size of that utility…makes us nervous,” he said.

Franklin Pierce School District lobbyist Charlie Brown told the committee that “school districts are in a bit of a Catch-22 here. They have to plan for the students, they have to build more schools, unless you want portables, and I think each and every one of you up there know that portables are not the way to educate the students of our states. We’re just trying to build these schools outside of the UGA, and in most cases adjacent to the UGA.”

“There was never any intent throughout the years of our discussion on these issues to build schools far beyond the urban growth area,” he added. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to do that. Some of the folks that have been opposed to this issue for the last several years have argued that ‘You’re going to put them way out and you’re going to bus them out these several miles and you’re just looking for the cheapest land available. That is not the case at all.”

Following the hearing, the committee majority voted in favor of the bill and referred it to the Rules Committee for a second reading. It will then have to be pulled from Rules and sent to the Senate floor, where Senate leaders will decide whether to bring it up for debate and a vote.

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