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Saturday, March 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Orchard Prairie School District, taxpayers wrestle with financial realities of preserving rural benefits

Behind the 1894 schoolhouse, kids climb on playground equipment during recess after lunch at Orchard Prairie School, a single-school district in the Bigelow Gulch area. The school district would like to build a gym to continue recess during rainy and wintry weather. (Jesse Tinsley)
Behind the 1894 schoolhouse, kids climb on playground equipment during recess after lunch at Orchard Prairie School, a single-school district in the Bigelow Gulch area. The school district would like to build a gym to continue recess during rainy and wintry weather. (Jesse Tinsley)
By Kip Hill And Jody Lawrence-Turner Staff writers

Plenty of room for her twin boys to play and a small rural school drew Teri Tucker from Spokane’s South Hill to the pastoral Orchard Prairie.

“It was the lifestyle that we wanted – hills to sled on, things like that,” Tucker said.

Her boys now attend the former one-room Orchard Prairie School with 80 kids in kindergarten through seventh grade.

The classes have met her expectations and she’s happy with the education her children are receiving.

And yet she wants more. So she led the push to update and add a gym to the historic school built in 1894. It hasn’t had a major renovation since 1971.

Her efforts failed among voters in February, even though homeowners within the independent Orchard Prairie School District pay the lowest tax rate for schools of any district in Spokane County – $1.32 per $1,000 of assessed value.

For every $1 the rural district’s property owners pay for schools, Spokane property holders pay $6 and residents in the neighboring West Valley School District pay $7.

Tucker knocked on dozens of doors in Orchard Prairie ahead of the unsuccessful February vote, and she found a common theme: “People were more worried about ‘my’ financial security and ‘my’ children, as opposed to ‘our’ financial security and ‘our’ children,” she said.

The rural nature of the Orchard Prairie district means large lots – greater than 5 acres. Landowners there have fought to preserve the rural landscape. By preserving that acreage size, however, property owners have assured that even a slight change in property tax rates could result in an eye-popping bill.

“Most of our patrons are on 10- to 20-acre parcels; depending on their property, doubling their taxes could be a lot,” said Duane Reidenbach, Orchard Prairie School District superintendent.

The first homesteaders arrived in what is now called Orchard Prairie in 1879, fleeing the harsh winters and hordes of insects that plagued crops in Blue Earth County, Minnesota.

Millions of grasshoppers hatched in the summer of 1875 in the rural county southwest of Minneapolis, threatening crops there to such a degree that a bounty was put on the insects’ heads, wrote Kathryn Treffrey Highberg, a historian who published a history of Orchard Prairie in 1979.

“In nine days, the county had paid out $31,255.66,” Highberg wrote. Many of the founders of Orchard Prairie were beneficiaries of the grasshopper bounty.

Residents of Orchard Prairie, a geographic area roughly bound by Jensen, Uhlig, Orchard Prairie and Bigelow Gulch roads, have fought private development and incorporation efforts for years, according to Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle articles. In the early 1990s, residents fought multiple efforts by developer Harold Flesland to build a subdivision on the west side of the prairie.

Efforts to retain the community’s character don’t end at land disputes. School board members also fought requests from West Valley School District in the late 1980s to pay for construction of their schools, though many students who finish elementary school at Orchard Prairie end up transferring to the district for junior and senior high school.

Tucker said before the bond is brought up again, parents need to pitch the old school as a community center to get buy-in from residents whose children may have graduated there long ago.

“We want to invite people to the school and build that momentum to show them that it’s a community obligation,” she said.

But the number of students from outside the area that attend Orchard Prairie, and the education options available to those students when they leave the school, leave residents wary of a tax increase, Tucker said.

Keeping the tradition

Building Orchard Prairie School in 1894 gave nearby children a school to call their own. By 1902, the one-room schoolhouse overflowed with students and another room was added.

Through the years, the original building has been preserved as more classroom space has been added. The last addition came in 1971 after voters approved a bond to build a second building.

Though the February bond to pay for a new gym and upgrades to the building fell short by almost 8 percentage points, residents of the rural area have been supportive of the levy, which pays for instructional materials, salaries and equipment. It passed in February with 65 percent of voters saying yes.

Families living in surrounding districts sometimes request that their children attend Orchard Prairie. The small school offers a more intimate learning experience with individualized attention and a family feel.

However, the number who choice-in is usually a handful and “we always have a waiting list of eight or 10,” said Reidenbach, the superintendent.

Once the students reach eighth grade, they go to one of the nearby school districts, usually Mead or West Valley. Orchard Prairie School District pays a fee to those districts; for example, if a student goes to Mt. Spokane High School, the cost is about $1,900. For West Valley High School, about $2,100.

“About half our levy goes to those” payments, Reidenbach said.

Orchard Prairie could be annexed into one of the neighboring districts.

“About every four years, the Legislature looks at consolidating school districts, and they look at us,” Reidenbach said.

But like the community that has fought for their land and the privilege to keep the status quo, the school district wants to remain intact.

For that reason, Reidenbach isn’t dissuaded by voters shooting down the recent bond.

“Bonds usually don’t pass the first time,” he said. “The thought, right now, is to tweak the bond and rerun it next year.”

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