Bethel School District, Pierce County officials seek sidewalks near schools

Each school day, hundreds of students navigate busy 168th Street East on their walk to and from Spanaway Lake High School.

The street doesn’t have sidewalks. It’s just an uneven dirt surface along the edge of the road. Students can negotiate the path, but there’s no curb or sidewalk separating them from traffic.

It’s not the only unprotected walkway for students in the Bethel School District. And Tom Seigel, superintendent of the district in southeast Pierce County, believes it’s time to change that.

“This portion of the Bethel School District long ago lost its rural connotation,” Seigel said in a recent letter to Pierce County officials. “It is now a suburban area, but without the normal resources of a suburban area — it needs sidewalks, at a minimum.”

Seigel has caught the ear of at least two members of the Pierce County Council, who say they want to include money in next year’s budget to study the need for sidewalks near schools not only in Bethel, but in other school districts in unincorporated Pierce County.

Council members Connie Ladenburg and Rick Talbert of Tacoma say they would like the council to include an extra $100,000 in the 2015 budget for such a study.

That kind of money wouldn’t build a lot of sidewalks. But both council members say they hope it will allow the county to study problems near schools and rank projects according to need.

“This would be a comprehensive analysis of safe routes to school throughout the county,” said Talbert, whose council district includes part of the Bethel School District.

He said he has heard similar concerns from smaller school districts as well, including Parkland-based Franklin Pierce School District. He points to the Peninsula School District as another example.

Ladenburg said she doesn’t want a school sidewalk study, once completed, to sit on a shelf.

“It’s important, to both Rick and I, that it doesn’t go away and that it’s not just a ‘feel-good’ process,” Ladenburg said.

“We can’t put sidewalks everywhere. It’s extremely expensive,” she added. But a good assessment of the needs near schools throughout Pierce County could help draw other types of potential funding, including grants, she said.

Seigel also plans to ask for funding help from state lawmakers in Olympia. He said the School District is ready to do its part, but that it can legally build sidewalks only on school district property.

A potential future bond proposal, which has been studied by the School Board, could include $1.5 million for sidewalks on district property.

Ladenburg agrees that the problem is much bigger than the Bethel district. But she and Talbert both credit Seigel and his staff with doing a lot of legwork on the issue.

One example: Bethel officials provided a $3.4 million estimate for the cost of building 7,500 feet of sidewalks on either side of 168th Street East between B Street East and 22nd Avenue East. That would cover housing developments where many students live who walkto Spanaway Lake High School.

However, Ladenburg said Bethel’s calculation might not take into account new sidewalk standards, such as curb cuts for the disabled. She said county and district engineers plan to get together to adjust estimates if needed.

Bethel has a sidewalk wish list that goes beyond Spanaway Lake High. The district says other school neighborhoods with some of the greatest sidewalk needs include Evergreen, Naches Trail and Pioneer Valley elementary schools, along with Graham-Kapowsin High School.

Together, those projects would cost an estimated $8 million, according to the school district. That is money Seigel hopes the state will be willing to spend.

Seigel said his district is motivated not only by concerns about student safety, but by concerns about district transportation spending. School districts receive most of their transportation funding from the state. But many supplement state funding with local levy dollars.

Of Bethel’s nearly 18,000 students, about 10,000 ride school buses — and for some children, it’s not about the distance.

“We have kids who live a quarter of a mile from school, but we pick them up because there is no safe walking route,” Seigel said. “In some cases, they can see the school from where they are, but there is no safe way to walk.”

The district spends about $1 million in local levy dollars on transportation. That’s nearly 10 percent of the total transportation budget of $10.8 million.

Seigel said that if the state and county pitched in to help build sidewalks near schools, the district wouldn’t have to bus as many nearby kids and could redirect those levy dollars to the classroom.

“My priorities are to make sure our kids get to school safely and to do it as economically as possible,” Seigel said.