The road to better education starts here

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A quarter of a century is very long time. Unless you’re a road. Or a school. Twenty-five years ago this month Coeur d’Alene got a new one of both.

It all began in the early 1990s when the Coeur d’Alene School District announced they were adding a second high school. It would become known as Lake City High and it was going to be built on a 10-acre parcel that was donated to the District by the city (they did such things in those days).

Two more schools would follow: Woodland Middle School and Skyway Elementary, also on parcels donated by the city. The location, however, would prove to be a big challenge, as it was on the corner of Hanley Avenue and a street infamously known as the ‘Goat Trail,’ Ramsey Road. From the start city leaders were concerned about dumping 2,000 students and staff on such a deadly two-lane road.

So, they set about to expand Ramsey. The plan was to expand the road to four lanes and to add traffic signals at Dalton and Hanley. The problem was how to raise the needed $4 million in the 10 months before the school opened. The state rarely funds local arterials so that was not an option. Passing a bond seemed to be out of the question as taxpayers were growing weary of such things. In the end, it was decided if a way could be found to pay for the road without raising property taxes, that voters might approve of the bonds. So, that’s the route the city followed.

First, they identified additional funds being received from the state gas tax. While that would help it wouldn’t dent a $4 million project. So, staff approached the major utilities, Avista and Kootenai Electric Cooperative, who had franchise agreements in place to use the city’s rights-of-way for their transmission lines. They both agreed to increase the fees they paid the city, as long as the funds were dedicated to street projects, the first of which was Ramsey.

With the support of both Mayor Ray Stone and his successor Al Hassell, staff hit the road to campaign for the bond election. In February of 1994 nearly 90 percent of voters approved the bond sale. And not just the $4 million for Ramsey, but a total of $11 million overall. The balance would be used to expand Government Way, East Sherman and Northwest Boulevard, in the following three years.

Armed with the funding, it was off to the races: how to get two miles of road built in the seven months before Lake City High opened for business. The state predicted it would take a year just to acquire the needed easements to expand the road, but staff was undeterred. Led by city administrator Ken Thompson, the easements were obtained and the construction bid out. Remarkably, with Welch Comer’s design and construction by Jake Dodge’s company, the road was finished, both under budget and on time.

The result was a brand new school opening on a brand new road, just after Labor Day in 1994. Today Ramsey Road stands as a testament to all the planning and cooperation needed to make it happen.

Today we are also faced with similar issues as 25 years ago. With the explosive growth in the county, new schools are needed and the roads leading to them need to be expanded. The challenge is finding the partnerships to make it happen, and the funding. The State Legislature needs to help: funding capital projects for schools, instead of having to ask voters for more and more money, would certainly help. So would an increase in the gas tax, as proposed by the Press’ editorial staff in a recent opinion.

I fear we will continue to fall behind on both fronts, without our elected officials working together to fund these crucial needs. Just one trip on U.S. 95 is all that’s needed to remind us of what a pressing need we’re facing. So is the recent failure of the Lakeland school bond issue. The time is now to have a very serious dialogue in the legislature about funding schools and roads, and I’d like to see it happen in the next session.

That way, maybe we won’t have to wait another 25 years to find the solutions to these issues. And we can all work together again to make this a better place to live.

• • •

John Austin is a former finance director for the city of Coeur d’Alene and a current Commissioner for the Eastside Highway District. He can be reached at austin.consultingcda@gmail.com.

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