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New Central Valley Schools Dedicated

Children around the Inland Northwest will soon head back to school. Spokane’s Central Valley School District is opening one new and four renovated schools this fall. Most of them were paid for by the $122 million bond issue approved by voters in 2015.

The one facility not funded by that measure is the new school, Liberty Creek Elementary in Liberty Lake. On Tuesday the district held a public dedication for the facility and opened it to tours. We went earlier in the day and met Superintendent Ben Small.

It’s not often that a superintendent will take a visitor to a school library to show off the view. But Small says the big picture windows make the Liberty Creek library a place you want to spend time.

“There’s the valley that Liberty Creek runs through and you get a view of that ravine that Liberty Creek runs down into the lake," he said. "And natural light coming in.”

Little details like that, light from outside, can help a child learn, he says. And so the new schools were built to create an optimal learning environment: natural light, comfortable temperatures and quiet.

“There’s a study out of the University of Washington that shows you can improve achievement by about 26% in that kind of environment when those conditions are met," Small said. "And in many of our schools, open-concept schools, we didn’t have that environment. There were no doors or walls, so controlling that outside noise coming in and interfering with learning was very difficult; well, it was non existent, really. Very few windows to the outside and our HVAC systems were old.”

Now, with those factors addressed, Small hopes the conditions are right for better learning.

This is a school devoted to the youngest students, kindergarten through second grade, one of only a few such schools in the state.

“The thing that’s unique about Liberty Creek is that this school was paid for completely by a grant from the state of Washington for class size reduction,” Small said.

That’s nearly $21 million the district received from Olympia to help get its ratio down to 17-students-per-teacher as mandated by the state for kindergarten through third grade classrooms.

“It really does allow the youngest of our learners to have more individual attention from a teacher when they’re emerging as readers, they’re emerging as mathematicians, they’re emerging as scientists,” Small said.

The grant has benefit for the district too. It means Central Valley was able to preserve enough money to build another elementary school and help with construction of a new North Pines Middle School. Both will open next year.

Four remodeled schools will also welcome students: Evergreen Middle School and Greenacres, Chester and Sunrise Elementary Schools. Those will also have dedication ceremonies within the next few weeks. They join four other schools the district has finished and opened in the last two years.

They are significant additions to a district that, for years, couldn’t convince its patrons to increase taxes to build new schools. A bond issue failed in 2011. All the while, growth in the valley was bringing thousands of new children to learn in aging facilities.

“We said we have to go back, we have to do some things differently. We engaged our community differently. Over 4,000 people participated in a thought exchange, talking to us about what they felt their needs were in our district and a couple of things came out," Small said.

"Our safety was a big concern for our families. Many of our schools were open-concept schools. They had blind entry ways to offices so people had access to our children in our schools without some kind of secure entry way system," he said. "They also said we want capacity. We’re a growing school district; we don’t to bus our children across to different schools. We want our children to go to schools in neighborhoods that are close to them and schools that are in those neighborhoods. And finally they said, you know what, we want you to do that without a tax rate increase.”

Finally, in February 2015, the district found the right formula. Nearly 65% of voters said yes to the current bond issue. Small hopes Central Valley is showing its patrons it can be trusted to wisely spend taxpayer money.

“With, I think, schools that are designed, that look nice. They’re certainly not Taj Mahals. They’re certainly not over-the-top buildings. They’re very nice. They’re going to last for 30-to-40 years," Small said. "They’re going to serve communities as well as kids. There’s opportunities for communities to use these facilities after hours.”

Small hopes that good will now built with patrons will pay off with the next bond issue, scheduled for the February 2018 ballot.

“We have three major projects that will be included on that bond: there will be a third comprehensive high school, a renovation of Horizon Middle School and then a new middle school in the Toledo Station area in the city of Liberty Lake," Small said. "As we looked at that and get out and talk to people, now when they have questions, they have legitimate time that we can talk and explain.”

Ben Small is the superintendent of the Central Valley School District. Next week, the district will hold two dedication ceremonies: Tuesday at Evergreen Middle School and Thursday at Greenacres Elementary. Ceremonies begin at 6, tours at 7.