MERIDIAN — The Meridian City Council earlier this year held a public hearing on a subdivision that would bring hundreds of homes, along with apartments, to south Meridian, one of the fastest-growing areas in the Treasure Valley. Council members had favorable views on the development plans — proposed open space exceeded city requirements, homes had a unique design and the units met a price range in demand throughout the city.
But there was a problem: A letter from the West Ada School District to the city council said the development, called Graycliff Estates, likely would house 160 school-aged children who would attend Mary McPherson Elementary, Meridian Middle School and Meridian High School. Mary McPherson is nearly 150 students over capacity, and Meridian Middle School is more than 200 students over capacity — it's also 4 miles from the proposed subdivision.
Council members, befuddled at why those students would go to Meridian Middle School, delayed a vote on the development application to clarify whether that information was up to date.
It wasn't. A week later, on March 17, after learning those middle-school-aged kids would actually attend Victory Middle School, council members approved the Graycliff Estates application.
It's one of several examples of the Meridian City Council, along with the city as a whole, taking a stronger stance on school planning, especially in high-growth areas, such as south and northwest Meridian. That relationship between the city and the school district may be especially important in the coming months and years, as the district copes with a failed supplemental levy, a delayed facilities bond and possibly less funding from the state this year, all while facing new challenges caused by the novel coronavirus.
Meridian could surpass 150,000 residents by 2040, according to the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, and West Ada, which serves Meridian as well as students from Eagle, Star, Kuna and parts of Boise and Canyon County, could reach more than 50,000 students once new homes that have already been approved within its attendance area are occupied.
The West Ada School District can't keep up with speed of development, said Ed Klopfenstein, chairman of the West Ada board of trustees. That's largely due to the funding mechanism provided to school districts by the state: bond and levy elections to fund new or expanded facilities.
"The demand for school facilities is peaking, and we're getting a lot more need that is going to be more difficult to fill, considering we only have bonds that we can go out with," Klopfenstein said. "With the funding mechanism the state gives us, we're not designed to be able to increase our speed in kind. That's part of the reality, is schools are expensive, they're difficult to fund and they take a year or two to build, so it's not a fast turnaround. You can put in houses a lot faster than you can schools."
'A SHARED COMMUNITY ISSUE'
But the school district has found an ally in the city of Meridian and its city council, which Klopfenstein said are responding to the district's current capacity shortfalls and are sensing an economic environment that may not support a bond or levy election in the near future.
City and school district leaders say they're meeting regularly to tackle growth issues in Meridian, which represents more than one-third of West Ada's enrollment. This month, the city created a new position within its planning department that will act as a liaison between the city and West Ada, as well as with the Ada County Highway District.
The full-time position — comprehensive associate coordination planner — launched July 13 with a salary of $67,215, according to the city. Emily Miranda Carson filled the role.
"While cooperation and partnership with the School District is normal, the new position will bring greater transparency to the impacts that the City’s partner agencies face," said Meridian Mayor Robert Simison in an email to the Meridian Press. "During the campaign, I heard concerns from residents that schools were overcrowded and growth would further strain our system. This position will give better insight as we consider the impacts that development may have on both school populations and transportation planning."
Partly due to a request from Simison, the school district is working on updating a data collection policy that hasn't been updated since 1992, Klopfenstein said. The new policy will give better clarity about how the district calculates capacity and how it adjusts attendance boundaries.
"That's very positive from my perspective and shows how both groups are trying to be proactive," Klopfenstein said.
Liz Strader, a councilwoman who started her first term in January, has two young children in the West Ada School District. She told the Meridian Press that, in the past, West Ada would "stay in their lane" and the city would do the same, but that's starting to change.
"I don't think it's good enough to say, 'Well, that's not my job, that's just their job.' The truth is, it's a shared community issue," she said.
"We're coming together collectively to try to problem solve together and to do more proactive coordination with (West Ada)," Strader said. "At the end of the day, that should make a big difference for our kids."
WHOSE LANE IS IT ANYWAY?
Just a few weeks before the Graycliff Estates public hearing on March 10, the Meridian City Council and West Ada School District held a joint special meeting to discuss population growth and its impact on schools. The goal was to get on the same page about how the two public bodies could collaborate on ensuring new development doesn't overwhelm the school district.
"We do have the lever to pull in city council of approving or not approving applications," Strader said at the meeting. "And education is not the only reason we’re going to approve or not approve an application, but it is a very important consideration."
Steve Smylie, a West Ada trustee, who represents on the school board primarily parents from Boise, said the city council and school district "face many of the same problems."
"It’s a challenge, and I think a good part of it is, especially when we handle those issues of growth, that we speak the same language," Smylie said. "If a child comes to the doors of a public school, we have to figure out a place for that child to be. We can’t say, 'No, we’re passed our enrollment cap, we’re full.'"
For the relationship to flourish, city leaders say they need information on school capacity and plans for future school sites. They want to know which schools are overcrowded and where new schools are planned, that way the city council can make informed decisions on new development in high-growth areas and the city can ensure services — water, sewer and sidewalks — are ready for growth near a new school.
"I want to make sure that the school voice is heard," Councilman Brad Hoaglun told the Meridian Press in a recent phone interview. "It's one of many factors that we have to look at in approving a development."
The school district does have a 2016-2028 School Facility Plan online that shows enrollment trends and projections and future school sites; at times elementary school sites are donated to the district by a developer upon construction of a new subdivision.
NOT THE ONLY FACTOR
Schools are far from the only factor when considering new development, and there are limits to which school metrics the council should consider, Hoaglun said. For example, when district boundaries may need to be redrawn to account for new development, "That's not our lane to be in," he said.
If a development meets all the requirements a city council typically consider, but future students would have to be bused to a school that's farther away and has capacity, the development should proceed, Hoaglun said. It's then up to the homebuyer to decide, armed with knowledge about where their kids would go, whether to buy or rent a certain home.
"My thought process … is that's up to the people that are buying that home now," Hoaglun said. "That information has to be shared, and they can make that determination. Do I want to buy a house here because my kids are going to be bused to an elementary school 4 miles away? While I want to have that information, it is just one factor of many to be considered."
Hoaglun, a Meridian native, said he felt it important to point out that growth's impact on schools is nothing new.
"I really haven't known a time when we ever had enough schools to handle all the growth," said Hoaglun, who now has grandchildren who soon will enter elementary school. "My kids, growing up in Meridian, were moved all over the place."
With that history in mind, the overall health of the district at a moment in time should be kept in context, Hoaglun said. When a bond or supplemental levy fails, the city should think of ways to support the district. At the same time, school capacity shouldn't "completely stop development in Meridian," he said.
"If the school district doesn't have capacity, could they hold development in the city of Meridian hostage if that's the only criteria we base it on?" he said. "With my past experience, growing up in Meridian, raising a family in Meridian, that school crowding occurs throughout (Meridian's) history, we should make the best decision that we can based on the factors that are in play at that time."
OUR PROBLEM IS YOUR PROBLEM
During his State of the City address last month, Simison chided the school district for the location of the new Owyhee High School, “which was built on the edge, almost beyond, city services and basic infrastructure.” Located in Ada County, northwest of Meridian, the Owyhee High School land was the first plot west of McDermott Road to be annexed into Meridian.
The new high school is expected to open in fall 2021. In the meantime city infrastructure is trying to catch up, Hoaglun said.
Another bit of information that the district could share with the city: Where new schools are planned so the city can plan for services there.
But that may sound easier than it is because land acquisition is a major expense for the district, and affordable land that can support a school isn't easy to find, especially in Meridian. Owyhee High School was built where it was because the Ada County land was a fraction of the cost of land a mile down the road within Meridian city limits, a credit to Meridian's success as a city, Klopfenstein said.
The solution to that riddle, according to Klopfenstein, is a new funding mechanism for school facilities, such as impact fees, which would require a change to state law. Impact fees are paid by developers on new projects and fund capital improvements to parks, streets and public safety so those services can keep up with the growth the development brings. Idaho currently doesn't allow impact fees to fund school construction.
"A lot of this would be solved if we had impact fees, if we had some other mechanism besides bonds," he said. "Bonds are an onerous thing on patrons, and it's unfair, but we've approached the Legislature numerous times and Meridian's been a wonderful partner for us. The city's been very cooperative in trying to support us and support the schools because they know if they bring in too much development and there's not enough infrastructure (schools being infrastructure) then it's a planning problem for them."
How could the city assist the district in securing a new funding mechanism?
"Frankly, they have political connections that we may not have," Klopfenstein said. "They have clout. Mayor Simison is a very influential man and really respected in the state. If he says there's something the state Legislature should focus on and value, then I'm sure that's something they would take up."