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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Mead, Spokane Valley growth creates wait lists for neighborhood schools

Kip Hill And Jody Lawrence-Turner The Spokesman-Review

Marcus Riccelli hunkered in a camp chair and waited in line overnight with dozens of parents at Mead’s Prairie View Elementary School.

They weren’t braving the chilly weather that October night to buy concert tickets or the latest iPhone. They wanted to secure a bigger prize: coveted seats for their kindergarten-bound children next year.

“You shouldn’t have to wait in line to get your kid into your neighborhood school,” said Riccelli, who represents a swath of Spokane in the Washington Legislature. “This is America.”

Riccelli and other parents will have to wait until spring to find out whether their kids can learn their ABCs and how to sit crisscross at Mead School District’s newest elementary, which opened seven years ago. Or will they be bused miles across the district to elementary schools where there’s an open chair?

Planning that took place decades ago has led to overcrowding in fast-growing areas north of Spokane and in Spokane Valley. County officials long ago decided not to hold homebuilders financially accountable for the strain on public services, including schools, for fear of stunting countywide development. Legal challenges mounted by neighborhood leaders came too late.

Today school districts are wary of stopping or slowing growth because more students begets more money.

Lost in this transaction are some schoolchildren and their parents.

Riccelli said he endured the wait with timely help from his wife and other family members. And that raised a big concern: the inequity of the situation on the Five Mile Prairie.

“What if you’re a single parent?” he asked. “Even if you’re in a two-parent household, what if you don’t have a support system?”

Growth is important for economics, but government officials “are looking at the short-term benefit, not the long term,” Riccelli said.

State law allows impact fees

Factors leading to where second-grader Gaib Monk attends school were set in motion long before he was born.

Though his family recently moved to a growing subdivision on the Five Mile Prairie, Monk attends Farwell Elementary several miles away even though his younger sister attends the neighborhood school, Prairie View Elementary. He’s one of more than 75 children on the waiting list for Prairie View, a school his family can see from their back porch.

“He’s been on the list since the April before last,” Gaib’s mother, Tygra Monk, said at her home in the new Prairie Breeze development last week as a friend brought Gaib’s sister, Ella, home from kindergarten at Prairie View.

The development exceeds the number of homes allowed per acre under current rules for the land. However, the development was approved before the lower density guidelines were adopted. In the late 1990s, developers filed ambitious plans, known as “plats,” in a mad dash to dissect the former farmland into single-family plots.

Though the county changed the area’s zoning to slow development in 2002, the previous plans were grandfathered in. They’re only now starting to materialize in the wake of the housing market’s recovery.

“These plats stayed stagnant, then they got active years later,” said County Commissioner Todd Mielke, who represents the Five Mile Prairie area.

State law allows school districts and municipal governments to charge what are known as “impact fees,” or per-lot charges, to developers for construction of roads, sidewalks, parks and schools in neighborhoods where their building will place a strain on public resources.

The Mead School District imposed fees on developers in the early 1990s, but the practice ended abruptly a few years later when county commissioners intervened. They excused developer Buster Heitman from paying close to $96,000 to the district as a result of his Winfield Park subdivision in January 1995.

Michael Cathcart, government affairs director for the Spokane Homebuilders Association, said any impact fees would be passed down to the home buyer, raising housing prices.

“Certainly we don’t support the expansion of impact fees,” Cathcart said. “There are better models that should be explored.”

Central Valley School District asked developers in Liberty Lake to chip in for a new school in 2003 to accommodate children who would be moving into a 500-home subdivision. But government officials worried they didn’t have the planning rules in place to collect the fees without risking lawsuits.

Even if they did, school district officials say impact fees won’t pay for a school.

“The amount of income generated would only fund temporary housing for students, not generate enough funding to build a new school,” Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small said. “I do not believe it is the role of a school district to prevent growth. Our role is to plan and communicate the needs of our school district to our community.” 

Central Valley has grown by 1,700 students in the last decade. Schools are overcrowded and the burden has shifted to taxpayers to build new schools – with only limited success.

“Central Valley voters have not passed a bond since 1998, and the challenges that we face with our facilities continue to grow,” Small said.

Transportation one solution

Going to kindergarten can be scary. Riding a bus to a place far away from home adds to a child’s anxiety. Parents, too.

“It was really hard to put my 5-year-old on a bus to go to Farwell Elementary,” Jill Dunivant said, after Prairie View Elementary turned away her two oldest children the first year her family moved to the Five Mile area. “I followed the bus with my car all the way across town.”

Her children were enrolled into their neighborhood school the next year.

Like Central Valley, the Mead School District has grown in the last decade, adding more than 900 students.

“Growth is a good problem to have,” Mead Superintendent Tom Rockefeller said.

Still, he said, district leaders were told by homebuilders a decade ago that their projects would result in about 380 kids eligible to attend Prairie View. “Two or three years later, when we built that school, there were well over 600 students (which is the school’s capacity),” Rockefeller said.

Cathcart, of the Homebuilders Association, said his group empathizes with schools, which can only build facilities based on current needs and not projected population growth under state law. But he said the responsibility is the school district’s, not the developer’s.

“A developer is simply developing property for construction,” Cathcart said. “I don’t see that he has any specific responsibility” to stop overcrowding at schools.

The Five Mile area shows no signs of slowing. The main thoroughfare – lined with mud and gravel shoulders rather than sidewalks – is cluttered with advertisements for new homes located in neighborhoods like Prairie Breeze and Falcon Ridge. An additional 20 homes are planned for construction soon.

“But we can’t stop them,” Rockefeller said. “Whenever we get anything from the county, we always tell them it’s going to impact schools.”

Riccelli, a Democrat, agrees that growth is beneficial, but someone needs to consider the infrastructure that goes along with it.

“(Spokane) County leadership is not making that a priority,” he said. “All parties need to be paying their fair share. We walk a fine line in terms of how to support infrastructure and not slow down growth. The process needs to change at the very least.”

Although children are not always able to attend their neighborhood schools, Rockefeller is satisfied with how the district has managed the issue.

“We bus a lot of kids,” he said. “One of the things I’m actually proud of is we put the money into transportation so we level out classroom sizes.”

Students who go to schools outside their neighborhoods are picked up and delivered at their front door.

Transportation also has had to compensate for missing infrastructure. In the Five Mile Prairie area, the lack of sidewalks and traffic control devices forces most students to be bused within the school’s 2 1/2-mile radius.

Another approach is to change school boundaries to balance attendance areas.

Prairie View is full and the district eventually will have to redraw the elementary school boundaries, Rockefeller said.

But full-day kindergarten and a class-size initiative passed by voters earlier this month could make finding room at Prairie View even more challenging.

“We are all trying to figure out how we adjust to the growth,” Rockefeller said.

Legal challenges too late

Carla Bischoff spent a year trying to get her three children into Prairie View. Her youngest daughter got in only because she has been diagnosed with asthma, and the school sets aside a few spots for children with health concerns.

Farwell is a 15-minute drive from Prairie View on a good day, and several parents said having their children in different schools cuts down on their ability to volunteer at either building.

“It was a pain, especially having to drive off Five Mile Prairie,” Bischoff said.

There were legal efforts in the late 1990s to stem the tide of growth in the area, but community leaders say those challenges were mounted too late. Developers already had vested rights in the neighborhood. All that’s possible now is to push developers to meet guidelines for easing traffic and offering pedestrian options laid out in original planning documents.

“The Mead School District didn’t do a very good job of ferreting out how many developments were actually up here,” said Kathy Miotke, chairwoman of the Five Mile Prairie Neighborhood Association, which has legally challenged the county on many of its land-use decisions in the area.

Planning documents require the developer of Prairie Breeze, a corporation based in Western Washington, to build sidewalks on the west side of Five Mile Road and a pedestrian pathway to cross what neighbors call “nightmare” intersections near Prairie View Elementary. Miotke said Candace Mumm, a neighborhood activist who was elected to the Spokane City Council last year, was instrumental in getting those requirements added into the county plans.

The planning documents for Prairie Breeze contain vague descriptions of what the developer must do to ease transportation and pedestrian concerns, but when the elementary school was just an idea in the late 1990s county planners did not think it necessary to hold builders responsible for pouring sidewalks along Johannsen Road leading to the site.

“It appears unreasonable to require the applicant to construct a sidewalk … when it is not certain that an elementary school will be built,” county planners wrote in 1999.

Mumm said that kind of thinking illustrates the complexity of planning for growth at both the county and school district level, and the need for different agencies to communicate about their future plans.

Citizens are now finding ways to curb growth in the Mead area. Last month, the county’s Planning Commission – a seven-member volunteer board of residents who advise the county commission on zoning issues – shot down a developer’s plan to rezone an area of Wandermere to make way for the construction of a large apartment building.

Planning Commissioner Joyce McNamee led the charge to deny the rezoning. She said she was swayed by traffic concerns, but many of the dozens of neighbors who wrote in against the development said the project would put a strain on already-overflowing schools and add to the problem of children being bused around town.

More than 100 homes coming

More than 100 homes will be built west of Prairie View in the coming years, part of the additions to the Prairie Breeze subdivision and other plats on file with the county.

Home buyers will turn to real estate agents with questions about the amenities those neighborhoods have to offer.

“Realtors sell the property,” said Miotke, the neighborhood leader. “They sell it by saying ‘We’ve got this great Mead School District.’ They don’t tell people, ‘Yeah, there’s a school up here right on top of the prairie, but it’s completely full.’ ”

Real estate agents and developers of the property near Prairie View did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But Bischoff, the mother who worked to get her three children into the school, said her real estate agent told her the schools were overcrowded.

“She warned us about it,” Bischoff said. “But I didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”

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