Two competing state proposals may help Tri-City school districts searching for space, but it’s unclear whether either will be approved.
Senate Bill 5945 and House Bill 2216 would allow districts to buy land for new schools near growing developments.
School districts across the state are looking for some relief from a restriction that prevents new buildings outside of a city’s urban growth area to connect to water and sewer services.
Marie Sullivan, speaking for Pasco and Richland school districts at a Senate hearing on Monday, said the districts are adding hundreds of new students each year, and they are having trouble finding space near new homes.
“They really want to build schools where the neighborhoods are being built,” said Sullivan, a lobbyist for the Washington State Parent Teacher Association. “We are hoping that you can come to a resolution this year.”
Legislators believed they had a solution when House Bill 1017 passed both the House and Senate, and landed on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk at the end of April.
While Inslee signed off on a section concerning Bethel School District, he vetoed a portion that would have eased land use restrictions.
“I’m very sensitive to the need to build new schools across the state of Washington, including Eastern and Central Washington,” the governor said during a recent interview with the Herald editorial board. “I’m also very sensitive to the protection of agricultural land, which is such a treasure.”
It was not just a school siting bill. It was an effort to allow subdivisions and other growth to occur outside of the urban growth boundary.
Gov. Jay Inslee
Inslee’s problem was with a provision allowing homes and businesses to connect to the sewer and water pipe, which the governor called a camouflaged way to undermine the state law governing urban growth
“It was not just a school siting bill. It was an effort to allow subdivisions and other growth to occur outside of the urban growth boundary,” he said. “People want to use schools and children as a shield to allow massive development to undermine the central purposes of the Growth Management Act.”
After vetoing the earlier bill, Inslee’s office proposed a solution, House Bill 2216. The proposal limits the size of pipes to the size and scale to serve schools.
The legislation accomplishes the goals of school districts that are hunting for space, while protecting agricultural land, Inslee said.
Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, characterized the governor’s statements that House Bill 1017 was an attempt to undermine state rules on growth as an an exaggeration.
Zeiger, the chair of the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education committee, is offering Senate Bill 5945 as a solution to the governor’s issue.
The proposal keeps the size of the pipe the same, but limits how far it can extend outside of the urban growth area.
“Anything where we’re changing the Growth Management Act is going to be contentious. It was not a small feat that we got that past the Legislature,” Zeiger said. “We’ve taken the bill as it passed the Legislature and said, ‘Let’s limit the siting of schools to within two miles of the (urban growth area.)”
Anything where we’re changing the Growth Management Act is going to be contentious. It was not a small feat that we got that past the Legislature.
Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup
Prior to Monday’s hearing, Zeiger was hopeful a compromise could be reached with the governor. He said the governor’s proposal takes apart the coalition of support they built to support the bill.
“While that version could be perfected, my preference would be to stick with the spirit of what we’ve already passed,” Zeiger said.
Deb Merle, the governor’s senior education policy adviser, told the committee Inslee wouldn’t sign a bill that does not limit the size of pipe.
Inslee told the Herald it’s unnecessary for the pipe to be any bigger than the school needs if the goal is to find space for schools.
The school districts stayed silent on a preference for either bill, but they have all expressed support for easing the restriction.
For Richland, Superintendent Rick Schulte said either bill will serve the district’s needs.
“Fundamentally, for Richland, the two bills do the same thing for the school district,” he said.
It remains unclear whether a compromise will be reached before the end of the special session. Both Zeiger and Inslee said they want to see a solution.
“This is a well-understood issue, Legislators should be able to make a reasoned vote on these matters,” Inslee said.
“We need to act on school siting this year,” Zeiger said. “I appreciate the governor’s willingness to work (on the issue) after that partial veto.”