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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Partnership between school’s Mark Anderson, city’s Rick Romero led to landmark school and library bonds

Difference Makers Rick Romero , head of special projects for the city of Spokane (on left) and Mark Anderson, vice president at Spokane Public Schools, were the main drivers in the recently passed $495 million school bond. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It probably won’t be a bestseller, but Mark Anderson and Rick Romero just wrote the book on local intergovernmental cooperation.

“An Uncommon Bond,” they should call it, the story of how a city and its schools and libraries not only changed the landscape of learning in Spokane, but also its culture.

It’s a tale of inspiration, perspiration and finally confirmation, on Election Day, as voters overwhelmingly approved $572 million in school and library bonds.

The amount is unprecedented, but so was the process, which involved land swaps and hundreds of hours of meetings involving officials from the city, Spokane Public Schools and the Spokane Public Library.

“It’s never been done in the state of Washington, as far as we know,” said Anderson, a lifelong educator who for the last two decades has been an associate superintendent for Spokane Public Schools.

In a few years, Spokane will get three new middle schools and replacements for three others, along with major renovations and improvements at other facilities.

Seven libraries will be remodeled or replaced, some of them to be located near schools and shared with the public citizens who paid for them.

“It’s certainly been one of the highlights of my career,” said Anderson, who spearheaded the projects along with Romero, who heads special projects for the city, and libraries chief Andrew Chanse.

And because of the state Supreme Court decision that shifted more public education costs to the state, Spokane taxpayers will soon pay lower property tax rates.

It was an easy sell to voters, who gave the $495 million school bond a record 69.3 percent approval.

Incredibly, the idea needed just one year to go from a vague notion to why-didn’t-we-think-of-that reality.

The idea was inspired in the fall of 2017 by what Romero charitably called “underutilized city land” at the intersection of Perry and North Foothills Drive.

Three years earlier, with an eye toward acquiring property for future schools, the district put out feelers to the city.

Talks were renewed last fall, when Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer, pointed out that the “public already bought it” years earlier.

Shared by city public works and solid waste departments, it devolved into a giant storage facility that “is probably not the highest use of that property,” Romero said with a grin.

Ultimately, the land was traded for the former KSPS parcel on South Regal Street, where cows recently roamed next to the playing fields of the South Complex.

Soon the wheels of government gained momentum. Like the school district, the library had some modest goals. Eager to improve neighborhood libraries, Chanse hoped to share land with the schools.

“It didn’t take long to realize that the library would be a big part of this,” said Romero, who, like Anderson, has spent his lifetime in civil service.

For months, the parties sorted out the details in a second-floor meeting room at the school district’s downtown offices. The journey was even more intriguing than the destination, said Romero, who watched as the financial, legal and logistical minds emerged from their respective silos.

“It was pretty cool,” Romero said. “It was a healthy exchange of thinking as we worked through some pretty challenging issues. We all got to learn a lot about each other’s business.”

On May 9, Anderson updated the school board on land-use options that would ease overcrowding at elementary schools. His presentation included four bond scenarios that took advantage of the land swaps and the McCleary decision.

“We’re fortunate that we have this moment in time,” Anderson told the board, which eventually approved the idea of a bond in 2018 instead of a more-costly option in 2021.

The grand plan came together on Aug. 1 during a joint meeting of the school board and the City Council – fittingly held at the convention center.

Both bonds were placed on the November ballot, and everyone went to work to spread the word.

Anderson and Superintendent Shelley Redinger explained the bond to staff at all 50 schools, and they didn’t stop there.

They pitched the bond to neighborhood groups, retirement homes – “any place where we could get two or more people,” said Brian Coddington, the district’s spokesman.

“Mark was tireless,” said Romero, who also credited Chanse for spreading the word that the sum of the bonds was greater than the sum of its parts.

The message resonated strongest in northeast Spokane. In addition to a new middle school at the Foothills site, the Hillyard neighborhood will get a replacement for 60-year-old Shaw Middle School and better facilities for the On Track Academy, an alternative high school that has won numerous awards for its high graduation rates. A new $5.4 million library will share the grounds.

Even the speed bumps were negotiated as a team. When some citizens feared that a beloved dog park might be displaced by a new middle school on the South Hill, the city and school district worked to find a solution.

Going into election night, Romero and Anderson were “cautiously optimistic” that both bonds would earn the necessary 60 percent approval. While the rest of Spokane was fixated on national politics and the congressional race between Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Lisa Brown, a few dozen gathered downtown at O’Doherty’s Irish Grille.

Anderson and Romero were standing side-by-side and broke into smiles when the first numbers came in: 67 percent.