The Bethel School District, in a rural part of Pierce County, Washington, is governed by five elected school board directors. The district educated about 18,000 students in 2012–2013, a number expected to rise. Five school board members are elected by local citizens. One important job for a school director is to make prudent decisions on how to manage growth. School directors, in cooperation with superintendents and coordination with other local governments, make planning decisions.
The growth projection for Bethel indicates they will need a new high school to accommodate their growing student population. Their school directors examined population trends, bus routes, and locations of other schools. They consulted with other local governments and county planning staff, finally selecting a site and purchasing the vacant land.
After all this, the school district was sued by environmental protesters. They argued that a state law, the Growth Management Act (GMA), prohibits building a new school outside designated “urban growth” areas. Using the GMA, this small group of protesters forced the school directors to defend their plan before a panel called the Growth Management Hearings Board. The three unelected Hearings Board members eventually rejected the elected school directors’ decision.
The Hearings Board told the Bethel School District to find a new location within the urban growth boundary. Unfortunately, actually building a new high school in such a location would require the use of eminent domain to condemn and seize many family homes in the developed areas.
School directors are elected by local citizens to make prudent decisions in the best interest of local students, families, and taxpayers. The Bethel School District owns vacant land – purchased at a fair price and ideal for the needed new high school. Yet a few unelected, unaccountable political appointees have power to throw out their decision, potentially forcing them to spend millions of dollars on additional land (rather than on educating students) and demanding that they use eminent domain to take homes from families in their own community.
This is central planning that serves special interests and overrides local, democratic government. If local voters lose their say to unelected bureaucrats … is that self-government? It hurts people—students and their families and people who may actually lose their homes by eminent domain. That’s why the Bethel School District story is a Tale of Tyranny.
In the case of this tale, a solution has already been proposed in the State legislature (in the 2013 session). A bipartisan group sponsored HB 1848, which would have freed Bethel and other school districts to locate new schools in the most sensible areas for their own communities. Unfortunately, King County central planners and special interests, led by King County Executive Dow Constantine, testified against the proposed fix. The bill went nowhere. Watch the pro and con testimony on TVW here and here. This bill will return in 2014.
This issue is still not resolved. From testimony today (Sept 9, 2013) for the Bethel School District to the Local Government Affairs Committee.