Tom Seigel has a problem. As Superintendent of the Bethel School District in Pierce County, he’s got three high schools bursting at the seams with students. And there are thousands more new homes, parents and kids coming in the next decade. A sweet site secured for a fourth comprehensive high school lies fallow. It’s just on the wrong side of a so-called Urban Growth Area (UGA) line. Under the state’s Growth Management Act that line is seen as all but sacrosanct. This needs to change, according to Seigel and other school superintendents across the state.
It’s nine years since a state school siting summit report sharply rejected the idea of allowing new schools outside UGA, but the tide may be starting to turn. Only a few months since issuance of a state task force report gave voice to school district concerns, and paved the way for an attempt at new legislation.
Seigel was one of several local school bosses testifying earlier this month to the State Senate’s Government Operations Committee in support of SB6426. It would let new schools be built outside UGAs if there are no feasible sites within them and if other conditions are met.
Key Bill Clears Senate; Moves To House Local Government Committee
SB 6426 has five Democrat and two Republican sponsors, a clear signal of bipartisanship in the GOP-dominated Senate. It cleared the Senate February 16 by a 35-13 vote and advanced to the House Local Government committee, chaired by Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-23).
How bad is it in the Bethel District? Seigel told Lens, “At Graham-Kapowsin High School during class passing time we’ve got 500 kids going out to portables and 500 coming into the main building from portables, all through three doors. That just doesn’t work. At Bethel High School, the cafeteria is so packed – even with lunch in shifts – that some kids are either sitting on the floor leaning against the walls to eat their lunch, or standing at high tables we’ve had to put in the school’s common hallways.” Theaters and athletic facilities also feel the space pinch. The three high schools are a combined 1,050 students over capacity, said Seigel. “It’s just crowded and less efficient and some kids do not cope well with physical crowding.” It can even have a bearing on graduation rates, he added.
A Serious Crowding Problem – And More to Come
If that’s not enough, some 6,000 more housing units approved by growth planners are in the pipeline for the Bethel district. This means 20,000 more people moving in over the next 10 years including 3,000 more students, said Seigel.
A 2006 district bond issue gave voter authorization to buy land for a fourth comprehensive high school. Two million dollars was spent for an 80-acre parcel across from the church near North Star Elementary School. The district has gotten approvals from the Graham Land Use Advisory Committee, plus Pierce County planning officials and the county council.
No matter. State law is currently read as strongly discouraging or preventing non-UGA land for new facilities to educate students from within the growth line. Leading the local opposition are advocates echoing the concerns of the influential Seattle environmental non-profit FutureWise. They want to preserve farmland, fight sprawl, and concentrate urban growth.
Growth Management Act a Barrier
They’ve got a leg to stand on, currently. The SB6426 Bill Report says the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA), passed in 1990 and 1991 “…provides that, in general, it is not appropriate for urban governmental services, such as public services and public facilities at an intensity historically and typically provided in cities, to be extended to or expanded outside of the UGA.”
The state’s 2007 school siting summit final report prepared for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction by the Olympia-based planning firm Jones & Stokes, was even more pointed on the matter. It stated, “Due to the high cost of land in urban areas, schools often find land on the fringes of urban growth areas where it is more plentiful and less expensive. This leads to inefficient and costly provision of services and is in direct conflict with the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA).”
Arguing to the Senate Government Operations Committee earlier this month for keeping current restrictions was Bryce Yadon, State Policy Director of Futurewise. “Let’s not circumvent all planning and have them site, wherever. As soon as you have an attractive public facility you’re going to have greater pressures” for outward development beyond designated growth areas, he said. “You’re going to start losing farm land.”
Also opposed to loosening growth rules governing school siting was Holly Gadbaugh, a 19-year Olympia City Council member, and planner. She said, “The larger sites outside the UGA are likely to be more available and have less expensive purchase prices” but those savings could be offset by greater transport costs, extended utilities and added road improvements.
Yet land purchase costs are hard to ignore. According to the recently-issued state task force report, “Ron Thiele, Superintendent of the Issaquah School District, explained that property inside the urban growth area costs 10-20 times more than property located outside of the urban growth area in that district.”
The reality in the Bethel School District, said Seigel, is that the new high school site across the magic line lies amidst a flowering of housing developments that are just inside the boundary – the growth has already happened, more is coming and there are no suitable sites where some planners and advocates prefer.
Echoing those points in recent Olympia testimony were school superintendents from Richland, Kennewick and Spokane.
An “Imaginary Line Drawn Down an Empty Field”
Richland Superintendent Rick Schulte told the Senate committee, “The problem we’re experiencing is rapid growth,” over 40 percent in Tri-Cities over the last decade. The district continues to buy land for schools and look for more land inside the designated growth area but much of it “includes wetlands,..endangered species habitat, difficult topography with basalt cliffs, floodplain,” plus land that’s not for sale and land “very distant for biking, walking.” In contrast, just outside the growth line is a suitable site for a badly-needed new high school. It happens to be adjacent to a middle school on the “right” side of the boundary. “It’d meet all the goals and priorities of the GMA but it’s separated from the middle school by an imaginary line drawn down an empty field,” said Schulte.
‘We Need Relief’
Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond told lawmakers that suggestions from urban density advocates that districts should use their powers of eminent domain to condemn land for new schools inside the growth area, ignore the serious political and financial consequences. “We’d never again pass a (school) bond,” he said. “We need relief,” Bond said, and that includes ensuring that K-12 schools are clearly classified as essential public facilities under the GMA so exceptions can be made to siting guidelines when warranted.