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Expanding student population has CdA school district cornered

Coeur d’Alene school officials were aware that the once wide-open Rathdrum Prairie was being gobbled up by development, but school administrators never realized how fast the land was disappearing.

Now the district is faced with few possibilities for land where it needs it most, in the northwest corner of the school district, and is looking toward its least populated southern reaches for a solution.

The realization came a few years ago, Business Manager Steve Briggs said, when the district began working with the city of Hayden to find property for a new elementary school in the northwest corner of the district.

“You drive out there and see the number of developments going in and the number of houses being built,” Briggs said. “It forces you into thinking about how you are going to serve that population.”

Once it had secured a site for the new Atlas Elementary – set to open next fall – the district began looking for larger parcels for future middle or high schools. They approached landowners, but none was willing to sell. Other pieces of property were too close to the Coeur d’Alene Airport.

It turned out the only property available in that area was not even in the Coeur d’Alene District, but on the other side of the boundary in the Lakeland School District. Briggs arranged a meeting with the business heads from Lakeland and neighboring Post Falls School District to discuss the fact that the three districts were rapidly approaching one another’s boundaries.

Briggs had an idea for a three-way swap among the districts. If Lakeland would be willing to adjust its boundaries so Coeur d’Alene could have the property it needed, Coeur d’Alene could adjust its boundary to Post Falls’ benefit and then Post Falls could adjust its boundary with Lakeland.

Neither of the neighboring districts was keen on Briggs’ suggestion.

“We owed our patrons the effort,” Briggs said, adding that he understood why Lakeland and Post Falls were protective of their boundaries. “Probably if the tables were turned, I would certainly share some of their views.”

Administrators from both districts said they were sympathetic to Coeur d’Alene’s dilemma, but relieved they still had a little more space within their own districts to handle future growth.

“We felt pretty good that we’re not facing the same problems Coeur d’Alene had,” said Tom Taggart, Lakeland’s business manager. “We understood their problem. Their solutions just didn’t work for us.”

Coeur d’Alene has been experiencing a steady increase in students, as high as 2 percent each year. Lakeland and Post Falls have been growing at even steeper rates.

Schools employ several tactics to predict growth – such as watching the county’s birth rates – and try to make efforts to plan. It’s hardly an exact science, Briggs said.

The Coeur d’Alene District has some property available for new schools. The district owns 10 acres near Thomas Lane and 22nd Street and a 7-acre piece at Nez Perce and Atlas. It has smaller pieces of land near Woodland Middle School, Bryan Elementary, Canfield Middle School and Winton Elementary.

The only suitable land for schools would be the Thomas Lane and Atlas Road sites and the property near Woodland, Briggs said. Each is only big enough for an elementary school. A middle school site would ideally be 25 to 30 acres and a high school could require as much as 60 acres, he said. Lake City High sits on 40 acres.

The Atlas Road property hasn’t been seriously considered for a school site because it is bisected by two regional gas pipelines.

None of the district’s property is where it’s most needed – in that northwest corner. Because options are limited there, the district has decided to look to other areas in the district. For now, the obvious answer is to look south.

The district boundary extends south along Highway 95 all the way to the Blackrock Development on the west of end of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Briggs said the district would likely start looking for land just south of Interstate 90, closer to town where development is more likely to begin.

“At some point in time, south of the river is going to be getting a lot of attention,” Briggs said. “It’s a matter of trying to guess when that might be.”

Post Falls School District is destined to grow larger than the Coeur d’Alene district, Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane said.

In the not too distant future, he said, Post Falls will likely need another high school, two more middle schools and could have as many as 16 elementary schools.

“In order to be good stewards for the future, we need to set the district up so we won’t be in the situation where the Coeur d’Alene District is now,” Keane said. “We’re always looking to try and get ahold of property.”

The district recently purchased land at McGuire Road and Prairie Avenue for a future middle school site. It has an elementary site in the Montrose development that’s cooperatively owned by the city. Post Falls will gain possession of an elementary site on Greensferry in 2006 and “has a couple elementary sites on the radar” in other areas.

Lakeland is seeing a lot of growth from Rathdrum toward the south and east, Taggart said. It has been “promised” a site in the southern part of Rathdrum and has sites for elementary schools in Hauser Lake, Twin Lakes and between Garwood and Athol. For the long term, Taggart, said the district is trying to find a site for another secondary school.

All three districts have a common challenge in trying to secure land for future growth – funding. Finding enough money to buy big chunks of land at one time is difficult, so they purchase pieces of land as it’s available. The districts also try to work with developers to secure land in and around new developments.

“In a large development, it’s in everyone’s best interest to have a school site right there,” Keane said. Having a school site in a new development helps sell homes, but it also makes things easier for the districts.

When the three districts met to discuss the growth near their boundaries on the prairie, they considered several options. Just as unpopular as a boundary adjustment was the suggestion of a jointly run high school, shared by two districts.

Not only do the districts have different philosophies, but they also have different programs, Taggart said. And the logistics of such a partnership are many.

“Nobody said, hell no, we won’t consider it,” Taggart said, “but there would be a lot of hurdles.”