Planning for School Siting

School districts are independent units of government, responsible for planning the education facilities within their district. Because of their governance structure, it can be difficult to plan for and site schools in coordination with local comprehensive plans. This webpage includes information and guidance on school siting in Washington state.

Photo of new elementary school being built in Vancouver, WA

In Washington State, school districts are poised to grow. The 2012 McCleary decision requires the state to “fully fund” education and limit class sizes at lower grade levels. With an improved economy and population growth, local school districts are already planning for many new schools, and additional classrooms at existing schools. 

2017 Amendments to the Growth Management Act Address School Siting

In 2017, the Growth Management Act was amended specifically to address school siting issues, authorizing counties, in certain circumstances, to extend public facilities and utilities to schools located outside urban growth areas.  

In 2023, Commerce prepared this legislative report in alignment with the 2017 requirements.

The GMA requires counties and cities to:

  • Plan for sufficient capacity of land suitable for development, including public facilities. Schools that serve urban populations and that require urban services should be located inside UGAs. RCW 36.70A.020 GMA Goals and RCW 36.70A.070 the Land Use Element.
  • Work together to prepare a prioritized list of lands necessary for identified public uses – including schools. RCW 36.70A.150.
  • Consider schools and school grounds when new subdivisions are reviewed. RCW 58.17.110 Subdivisions.
  • If impact fees are to be collected, the capital facilities plan should address schools. RCW 82.02.050.

Countywide planning policies also provide more guidance for where schools may be located

School districts, public agencies and private entities should work together to develop joint inter-agency agreements to provide facilities that not only meet the demands of the education for our youth, but also provide for public recreation opportunities that reduce the unnecessary duplication of facilities within Skagit County.

Skagit County 9.11:

  • Certain public capital facilities such as schools and libraries that generate substantial travel demand should be located first in Designated Centers or, if not feasible to do so, along or near major transportation corridors and public transportation routes.

Kitsap CF 3 (b):

  • MPP-PS-21: Site schools, institutions, and other community facilities that primarily serve urban populations within the urban growth area in locations where they will promote the local desired growth plans.

Vision 2040: Multi-County Policies required for King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties. 

  • Pierce County: Ed 5-3: Prioritize the location of (school) facilities in urban areas with consideration to existing facilities in rural areas. 

Studies addressing the challenges of school siting

Growth Management Hearings Board guidance related to siting schools

The county has an obligation to work with school districts in the siting of schools. It also has an obligation to facilitate the siting of schools within urban areas while discouraging them outside of urban growth areas (UGAs). Hensley VI, 03-3-009c, FDO, at 22

School or church properties that are adjacent may be drawn into the UGA. Pilchuck VI, 06-3-0015c, FDO at 53

Any actual UGA extensions for churches and schools shall be limited and rare, for the following reasons:

  1. RCW 36.70A.150 requires cities and counties to identify land for public purposes, specifically schools.
  2. School impact fees require coordination between school districts and jurisdictions so school needs should be known.
  3. Accommodating school needs within existing UGAs should be a priority. CTED, 03-3-0017, FDO, at 28-29.

Schools are authorized in rural areas. Vashon Maury CPSGMHB 95-3-0008, FDO