In a few months, 1,300 students will pour through the halls of the brand new Owyhee High School on what was once farmland on the edge of Canyon County.
This school, built with a maximum capacity of 1,800 students, stands ready to absorb new students gushing into the West Ada School District as Meridian booms. The 70-acre campus will include its own football stadium, lawns, parking lots, and other trappings to launch the next generation of Idahoans into adulthood. It even comes with a snazzy mascot: The Storm.
But, the new school didn’t come without controversy.
Its location outside of Meridian city limits sparked conflict with the City of Meridian when plans came up for approval in 2018. City leaders balked at its remote location and the expense of running services to Northwestern Ada County. At the same time, the school district argued building the school preempted the growth rapidly marching to the county line.
Amid the Treasure Valley’s rapid growth, affordable housing, traffic, and overcrowded parks dominated headlines. But the network of public schools, their locations, and how students (and parents) can get there is a crucial piece of the puzzle of understanding how our community is handling the population influx. Can schools exacerbate expensive sprawl? How can districts afford to expand when land prices are sky-high? And what’s the best way for kids to travel there?
These are all questions Treasure Valley school districts continue to face in the coming decades as more students hit the books in southwestern Idaho than ever before.
A tale of two districts
Schools in the Boise School District and West Ada School District look quite different.
Boise, one of the state’s oldest districts, has tighter campuses with older buildings. They’re often integrated into neighborhoods and the majority of students walk or bike to school, especially in the lower grades. Some elementary schools sit on fewer than five acres, including playground space and parking for staff.
Even the high schools are in more urban environments. Boise High School, dating back to 1903, is tucked between the Idaho State Capitol and the tightly packed North and East Ends. There are limited athletic fields, little parking for visitors and bike racks fill the courtyard between the multiple buildings.
This is sharply different from the sprawling campuses in West Ada, skirted by large lawns, athletic fields for each school with most students either driving there, riding with their parents or taking the bus. Biking or walking is rarely an option given the less densely populated neighborhoods in the western part of the county and the packed roads with limited sidewalks connecting the newly built subdivisions with the schools.
Char Jackson, spokesperson for West Ada, said many factors come into planning the location of new schools. She said the district is fortunate to have the space to build larger school campuses. Depending on development, the campuses could become more walkable over time. Plus, the school district is often restricted to where it can purchase land due to the price of parcels closer to existing development.
“I think when we think about Owyhee (High School), it’s not super walkable right now, but looking ahead knowing what developments will come it will be a much more walkable school,” she said. “It comes down to location. We aren’t always able to get a piece of land in a location that would be super walkable. Sometimes land is donated. While we might want to get donated in a certain area, that is something that is really hard for people to give up for a school.”
Do distant schools mean sprawling cities?
Chris Danley, a transportation planner who owns his own Boise-based consulting firm, argues this type of school planning only exacerbates the region’s problems with paying for growth. In some research on schools and transportation his company, Vitruvian Planning, conducted in Idaho in the past few years, he found that schools are consistently being built bigger and further from their students and driving up costs.
He said when schools aim to build campuses larger than 60 acres far from existing development, it subsidizes growth to continue to sprawl because, in some cases, the school districts already paid to connect the area to sewer and water, and developers can more easily follow suit. Then, the distance from students’ neighborhoods requires a spike in busing costs and necessitates driving to school, which costs the locality money to expand road infrastructure to an underdeveloped area.
Danley said a major driver of the large size of school campuses throughout the state is demand for parking at football games during the fall.
“We’re building a 70-acre campus in order to accommodate apparently 6 nights of football a year and yet for the rest of the year, for the other 358 days, we’re dealing with the location of a school that is incredibly problematic, the maintenance that comes along with the acreage and a bunch of other things,” he said. “The Boise Towne Square mall and the entire parking lot that surrounds it with that ring road is under 70 acres but we’re building schools bigger than that for maybe 2,000 kids.”
Jackson said the district hasn’t heard any pushback from residents of the large acreages of their schools and the individual athletic fields for each school from parents. She said there hasn’t been any discussions of shared facilities, but it could be a possibility decades down the road due to growth.
In Boise, schools largely share off-site fields for athletic competitions – though Borah, Timberline, and Capital each include fields on site for practice and smaller competitions. Teams use Dona Larson Park or other Boise State facilities for many competitions, where Meridian schools generally hold games at the school campus.
“I know it’s an expectation we have athletics for our schools,” she said. “With that comes parents who want to see their kids play so we have to give them access to do so. I haven’t heard a lot of pushback that we’re doing a lot for something that isn’t worth it.”
Smaller schools = more staff
There are tradeoffs to having more, smaller schools.
Boise School District might pay less for maintenance for smaller campuses and save on busing costs with students biking or walking. But more buildings mean more administrators, more janitorial staff, and other operations support making it difficult to compare costs for the different models of doing things in each district.
Boise’s Deputy Superintendent Lisa Roberts said Boise has reaped numerous benefits from it’s neighborhood schools with more walkability built in over the past hundred years. With every school on a relatively small lot, there’s more equity of amenities across all of the city’s high schools and it allows for more community with the students, parents and school staff.
This is especially helpful in the district’s community schools, which provide social service resources in lower income neighborhoods.
“I’ve been at a school that had a lot of busing and a school that didn’t have busing and you definitely have better participation for after school events,” Roberts said. “Almost every single student walks to Trailwind Elementary. School gets out and (all the students) all scatter and it’s fun to watch to see them walking home from school. It creates an amazing community.”
Boise’s newest elementary school is set for a 3-acre parcel in Harris Ranch. Brian Walker, Boise’s Timberline Quadrant Area Director, said although the school will be smaller than the national best practice for elementary schools, it will still be a wonderful place for students to learn.
“It just means you have to think about it differently,” Walker said, about the smaller acreage. “I know the national standards that are put out there around elementary sites, what’s adequate or what’s the standard is 10 acres, but the reality is when you look across America schools are built on much less land and you can build some amazing schools.”
A local control issue
Funding for public school busing in Idaho is complex.
It’s determined by a 2003 funding formula set by the Idaho legislature where the state pays the majority of the busing costs while the district picks up the rest. During the 2019-2020 school year, busing cost an average of $5.51 per mile and $983 per rider across all of Idaho’s school districts.
Both Boise School District and West Ada are able to bus their students for roughly the same per rider, with $1,035 and $1,027 respectively. But, Boise’s cost per mile is significantly lower with a cost of $4.22, compared to West Ada’s $5.11. However, Boise has far fewer students to transport than its western neighbor. In the 2019-2020 school year, Boise bused 5,867 students and West Ada transported 11,835.
Costs to bus Idaho’s students to school are on the rise, mostly due to population growth. In an email, State Department of Education spokesperson Mary McFarland said the department doesn’t take a position on how school locations can impact busing costs or how these issues are different in rural, suburban and urban communities.
“This is a local control issue,” she wrote in response to three out of four of BoiseDev’s questions on the topic.