Op-ed by Rep. Bob McCaslin: Exempting schools from ‘one size fits all’ growth restrictions key to reducing class size
Much of the work in the upcoming 2017 legislative session will be focused on changing how the state funds education and addressing the state Supreme Court's “McCleary Decision.” This effort will be long, arduous, complicated and fraught with political spin from every special interest group in Olympia.
But what if there was a fairly simple, straightforward, cost-effective bipartisan idea to help lower class size throughout the state? The concept of less students in the classroom and more teacher attention focused on each child is something everybody wants.
However, one of the obstacles to lowering class size is space. There simply aren't enough classrooms. Lowering class size creates a desperate need for more classes which has school districts around the state scrambling to find the money and the location to build new – or expand existing – schools.
The problem many school districts are facing, including some in Spokane and the surrounding region, is the “one size fits all” building parameters found in the nearly three-decade old Growth Management Act (GMA).
The GMA discourages development outside of urban growth areas (UGA) while encouraging growth within. This building restriction includes schools, and therein lies the dilemma.
Schools are an integral part of the community; a focal point for learning, social engagement and neighborhood pride. Every school superintendent and school board member will tell you they want to build schools where the students are. But in most cases, there is no direct correlation between a UGA and a school district's boundaries.
Public schools are required to provide equal education opportunities to students throughout their districts, yet are then told they must build their facilities in this tiny sliver of land here, or within that grossly expensive tract of land there. As a result, schools will have to bus students further while competing (with our tax dollars) with the likes of industrial industries, apartment developers and large retail stores for ever-shrinking buildable land. In some cases, they're even being punished for purchasing land years ago – planning appropriately for expansion – only to find that because the land falls outside of the magic UGA line, they can't build on it.
For the past few years, legislation has been introduced in Olympia to exempt school siting from the unnecessary restrictions of the GMA. Unfortunately, the old axiom of “politics trumping policy” has won the day each time. As we've seen, nothing gets the extreme side of the environmental movement more worked up than an attempt to question the actual felt impacts of the GMA.
But we shouldn't be putting the supposed environmental consequences of building on the other side of the imaginary line ahead of the needs of our students. We're not talking about building chemical factories here, we're talking about schools for our kids.
This session, I am introducing bipartisan legislation to exempt schools from the burdensome UGA line. This will allow districts to meet the needs of all students, make the most use of our tax dollars, and keep new classes from being forcibly constructed in areas that do not benefit the local community.
To paraphrase a quote we heard from one school superintendent last year, “Building a box and growing taller doesn't fit every school district.”
It's time legislators put aside political and special interests and act on behalf of students. Putting arbitrary and outdated building restrictions on our schools serves no one but a handful of environmental lawyers. Our schools, students and teachers need action now.
Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, spent three decades as a public school teacher and serves on the House Education Committee and the House Local Government Committee.