Politics & Government

Inslee signs law to help Bethel build a new school — but other districts will have to wait

Students crowd a doorway leading to 18 portable classrooms at Graham-Kapowsin High School in Graham. The Bethel School District wants to build a new high school, but the state’s Growth Management Act has been a barrier. A new law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee will allow the district’s plans to move forward.
Students crowd a doorway leading to 18 portable classrooms at Graham-Kapowsin High School in Graham. The Bethel School District wants to build a new high school, but the state’s Growth Management Act has been a barrier. A new law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee will allow the district’s plans to move forward. Staff file, 2016

Officials in the Bethel School District will get a break from the state’s antisprawl law, the Growth Management Act, to build a new high school in an area labeled as rural.

But if other schools districts outside of Pierce County want to do that, too?

For now, they’re out of luck.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill Wednesday that will let Pierce County districts build schools outside of the county’s urban growth area, where county officials are supposed to concentrate development.

Yet Inslee vetoed part of House Bill 1017 that would have let school districts in the state’s other 38 counties do the same thing.

Inslee said that section of the bill would have threatened Washington’s efforts to combat sprawl, because it would have allowed additional development to pop up in rural areas alongside the new schools.

If the Growth Management Act is to maintain its integrity ... then we can’t allow it to be death by a thousand cuts.

Gov. Jay Inslee, on why he vetoed part of a bill on siting schools in rural areas

The Democratic governor said he’s interested in “making sure a school is built and not an additional subdivision.”

“If the Growth Management Act is to maintain its integrity — if we are going to get value out of that, which is to preserve some degree of rural character — then we can’t allow it to be death by a thousand cuts,” Inslee said Wednesday.

The 1990 Growth Management Act discourages construction of schools and other government facilities outside of urban growth areas, and many jurisdictions don’t extend utility services outside those boundaries.

As approved by the Legislature, House Bill 1017 would have let multiple counties extend utilities and other public services to schools in areas that are considered rural. Yet the bill would have also allowed other property owners to tap into those utility lines.

Inslee vetoed that section of the bill and told lawmakers to work on a new version that would apply more narrowly to schools. However, he left intact a portion of the bill that would give Pierce County the flexibility to site schools outside its urban growth area.

The resulting legislation mostly helps the Bethel School District, which owns 80 acres about a mile outside Pierce County’s urban growth boundary. Bethel officials have wanted to start planning a new high school on that land for several years, but haven’t been able to due to the location.

I’m disappointed. There are a lot of school districts out there that could use some new options.

State Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, the chairman of the Senate education committee

Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel called the bill “a huge step forward” that will help his district plan for a projected 3,000 new students in the next decade.

“It clears the way for us to build a school on that site,” Seigel said.

Still, Seigel said he would have liked to see Inslee sign off on the entire bill, which he said would have helped other districts struggling with the same issues. The Washington State School Directors’ Association estimates that 28 of the state’s 295 school districts face situations similar to Bethel’s due to the constraints of the Growth Management Act.

“I’m disappointed,” said state Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, the chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. “There are a lot of school districts out there that could use some new options.”

In vetoing the bill, Inslee suggested lawmakers pass a new version that would require utility extensions, such as wastewater lines, “to be limited to the size and scale needed” to support solely rural schools — not other buildings. Inslee also said he wants to see school districts demonstrate there are no places to build a school in an urban area before looking to build in a rural one.

Zeiger said he’s not sure lawmakers will be able to agree on a measure that includes those requirements. Already, getting the bill through the Legislature “was a delicate compromise,” he said.

Even so, Zeiger said he will work with other lawmakers to try to send a new version of the legislation to Inslee’s desk.

Lawmakers are in the first week of a 30-day special session.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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