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School officials say bond measure was inspired by state funding mandate – and a big pile of dirt

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 9, 2018, 9:17 a.m.

This mound of dirt is just south of North Foothills Drive, west of Perry Street, shown Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. School officials cited the dirt piles – and the underutilized public space they represtent – as partial inspiration for the recent school bonds proposal. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
This mound of dirt is just south of North Foothills Drive, west of Perry Street, shown Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. School officials cited the dirt piles – and the underutilized public space they represtent – as partial inspiration for the recent school bonds proposal. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s no exaggeration to say that Spokane Public Schools’ new bond proposal was inspired by a pile of dirt.

Several piles of them, actually, on North Foothills Drive – the epitome of underutilized city-owned land.

“Inspiration was hastened by a sense of urgency,” superintendent Shelley Redinger said this week.

With a state mandate looming to reduce overcrowding in elementary schools, “We knew we were going to have to do something,” Redinger said.

“And we kept driving past those piles of dirt,” she added.

Ultimately, they provided the raw materials for a remarkable partnership between the school district and the city of Spokane.

The product is a landmark $495 million bond proposal approved by the board on Aug. 1. It would add three middle schools, replace three others and provide major capital improvements throughout the district – all while reducing the local tax burden.

“The more we looked at it, the more it made sense,” said associate superintendent Mark Anderson.

More inspiration came in January, when the district considered the implications of last year’s McCleary court decision requiring the state of Washington to more fully fund public education.

“That was the moment when we realized that this could be done – improve the schools and lower the tax rate for Spokane,” Anderson said.

This spring, Anderson shared the vision with board members, who soon warmed to the idea and approved the bond on Aug. 1 during a joint meeting with the Spokane City Council.

The combined cost of the school measure and the city library measure will be 98 cents thousand assessed value, with taxpayers seeing a savings of $1.22 per $1,000 of assessed value.

“Everything came together in a real positive way,” said Redinger, who credited the district’s warm relationship with the city for easing the process.

The centerpiece of the bond will be the three new middle schools, which would ease overcrowding and pave the way toward moving sixth-graders into middle schools beginning in 2021.

Additionally, the bond calls for replacement of Sacajawea, Glover and Shaw middle schools.

The bond also includes a new commons area at Lewis and Clark High School, renovation of the Libby Center for option programs, safety and security upgrades for all schools and other smaller projects.

Outreach began several months ago as Redinger and staff met with community groups to gauge support for the bond proposal.

“There was a lot of excitement as we went out in the community,” Redinger said.

More work lies ahead before the Nov. 6 election. The district has a strong record of passing bonds and levies but is taking nothing for granted.

“We’re going to make sure that the voters are well-informed,” said Anderson, who plans visits to neighborhood councils, retirement communities and other groups.

“We’ll meet with anyone who wants to,” added Brian Coddington, the district’s new director of communications and community relations.

If the bond passes, Redinger sees a brighter future, especially for middleschoolers.

“Research shows that’s when students start having some issues with grades and behavior, so we have to start looking at that differently,” she said.

“I really think we can do something innovative and lead the nation in thinking about sixth, seventh and eighth grade differently,” Redinger said.