Pierce County Should be Blamed for Bethel Overcrowding

Editorial – Marianne Lincoln

What do the years 1974 and 2021 have in common? Those are the years the Bethel School District, did and will be forced, to implement year round school.

I have lived in Pierce County, Washington since 1957. I have watched the unincorporated portions of the county turn from daffodil farms and horse pastures to multifamily housing, crowded single family homes with yards too small for a dog to pee, strip malls and commercial warehouses.

In recent years, I have heard two council members specifically state, “We set the urban growth area too large.” The translation of that is actually – we let homes and businesses be built that we could not afford the infrastructure to support.

My family moved to the Bethel School District in 1967. By my senior year (1974-75), construction in the district had become such an enormous drain on resources of the district, the school board turned to year round school to alleviate the problem. I have lived this nightmare before; it was my senior year. My younger brother had the year round schedule the rest of his school years. Extremely high interest rates in the early 1980’s slowed the housing market and the district finally passed a bond to construct several new school buildings. Year round schools ended with the opening of Spanaway Lake High School in 1981.

Pierce County is considered by most local voters as being too cozy with the building industry. Looking at the records at the Public Disclosure Commission for county council candidates of either party, you will see the Master Builders Association or various industry related companies and individuals, donating a vast portion of the money for the winning campaigns.

Currently, Pierce County has been working on what was dubbed the “City of Pierce.” This model is allowing them to place high density multi-family housing units along Pacific Avenue, Canyon Road and 176th Street within ¼ mile either side of the road. Large apartment developments recently built on 176th Street near Canyon Road and under construction at 8th Avenue East and the Mountain Highway (near Walmart) are part of the projection for 717 new students in the upcoming school year for Bethel. This amount is more than an entire elementary school, which is commonly 600 students.

With that level of growth, Bethel simply must have new buildings to keep up. I do not blame the district, they are reacting to the situation. Pierce County refuses to relent and admit the infrastructure for this quantity of people simply does not exist. It’s not just the schools being overwhelmed, it is deputy sheriff’s, sewers, water supply, bus service (lack of) and arterials that cannot support the new growth. Still, Pierce County Planning and Land Services (PALS) lives by the motto of – The Quickest Way to Yes.

Dear PALS, you need to be introduced to the letter N and the letter O. People in your county cannot get to work in a 30 minute commute anymore. It takes many of us 1.5 to 2.5 hours to get to our jobs, no matter where you live in the county. Translated to economic figures, if 100,000 commuters (only 1/8 of the county residents) spend 2 hours a day commuting at even minimum $15 wage, that is an economic loss of $3 million daily or almost $800 million a year. Many people commute 4 to 5 hours a day and earn much higher wages. Are we seeing the value of reducing that impact yet?

And what about the challenges the schools face trying to educate all the new kids in buildings that do not exist? The school impact fees only cover part of the cost of buying and siting portables. Many school properties already have the maximum number of portable building they can hold. Whose job is it to see the unincorporated area can handle this impact further?

It is the irresponsibility of the county, allowing these big population projects, that makes voters in this area say no to schools. What voters really should be doing is throwing out the people who keep allowing construction of the densities our area cannot support. Frustration over the impacts of high levels of new construction is why Bethel voters keep voting no. In fact, in that past 20 attempts to run bond issues on the ballot, the district voters have only passed them 4 times.

Placing a bond (or levy) on the ballot costs the district an average of $75,000. The actual dollar figure varies depending on the number of other items that are also on the ballot to spread out the costs. The Bethel Bond elections$75k average is used for planning purposes. I placed a call to the district and the Auditor’s office a couple days ago, but have not been able to get a response on the actual amount of money the county has charged the school district to make those 20 attempts to pass a bond, that requires 60% yes votes. Review that again, the county allows super high density development, forcing the school district to run bond requests on the ballot to build schools, charges the school district to make those requests and 4 out of 5 fail. 20 attempts is roughly $1.5 million dollars back to the county to run bond elections to build schools county constructions policies force on the district. [The Auditor’s office sent data, it is $1.16 million in the past 17 years.]

There are solutions. The county could back off their notion that every acre in the UGA needs 6 houses or more. The county is very capable of altering the areas to a more modest development level until the infrastructure is in place. A large portion of the Bethel district was one house per acre before the ironically named, Growth Management Act (GMA) was in place. Ironic because it isn’t managing anything very well.

The GMA was supposed to force the county and cities to plan the infrastructure along with the dwelling and commercial construction. Pierce County, something is very, very wrong now. The result, is a whole “unhoused” school full of students in the Bethel District and the School Board finally throwing up its hands and saying they have redrawn the boundaries all they can, they will have to consider something radical as year-round-school by 2021 if the current bond does not pass.

The Bethel Bond on the November ballot is a referendum on stupidity, and the stupid are Pierce County Planning and Land Services, the County Executive and the County Council. See it; know it; own it. This is and has been the reality the Bethel School District has had to react to, for a very long time. The County needs to back off and plan lower densities in outlying areas, until they and the voting population are willing and able to pay to put in the infrastructure. Until that time, the county needs to learn and use the word, NO.

No, no, no, no, no more high densities in Bethel. The builders can spread it out. They don’t have to stop building, just less per acre here and more in a city where the schools are not bursting at the seams. Pierce County, you have NO good excuses. Just stop acting like you are clueless to how this problem occurred, do it right and stop forcing our school district against the wall.


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