It's been several years since school officials in La Center and Ridgefield last went toe-to-toe in a territorial dispute. And while the worst of the quarrel is now part of history, measures are being taken to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Ridgefield school officials have asked Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, to help protect a 50-plus-year-old boundary separating the districts. At stake are swathes of commercial land on both sides of Interstate 5, from the East Fork of the Lewis River to 299th Street, which the La Center School District attempted to annex in 2006 in a bid to bolster its tax base.
Though the attempt was ultimately rejected 4-3 by a boundary-dispute committee and again on appeal, La Center was told it could try again in five years. That waiting period ends in January.
Pike's bill would require a majority of board members from each district to sign off before any land transfer. She said the bill is intended to protect property owners from unwittingly switching school districts.
"I think some people will have preferences when it comes to real estate," she said. "So there's a reasonable expectation that boundaries are there for a reason."
Mark Mansell, La Center's superintendent, said the school board has not voted to file a petition with ESD 112 to dispute the boundary, the first step in the process. While that could happen anytime after January, Mansell said the board has "enough fish to fry" and hasn't seriously discussed making it a priority.
Still, nothing is off the table, Mansell said. After all, La Center's lack of a tax base tied to commercial or industrial real estate restricts the district. "In our district, we don't have any commercial property to speak of," he said.
That's not for lack of trying.
In 2011, the city annexed toward the I-5 junction, but diversifying the city's tax base there has yet to take shape. What the move did was bring La Center closer to Ridgefield, along with the disputed school district boundary.
Pike's bill would essentially add an extra step in the process of acquiring disputed land. For Ridgefield and La Center, that step — requiring a majority of members from each school board to approve an annexation — is likely insurmountable. The two sides were deadlocked during the first go-around in 2006 and 2007.
The original dispute was punctuated by pugnacious language. Many of the Spudder faithful in Ridgefield accused their Wildcat neighbors of being duplicitous — or, worse yet, communists — in their attempts to acquire Ridgefield's industry-rich land. They told La Center to get its own businesses if the district was concerned about waning property tax returns.
In the ensuing five years, little of the rhetoric has changed. At a Ridgefield school board meeting last month, board member Scott Gullickson referred to La Center as having a "robber baron" mentality. He said the Ridgefield district would never attempt to take land from La Center.
"We don't do things that way," he said. "Obviously, our neighbors to the north don't think that way."
While Pike's bill is in the early stages, it received a nod of approval from Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, last week. She agreed to sign on to the bill.
Although officials from the Ridgefield School District approached her about drafting a legislative fix, Pike said the bill was not intended as a knock against only La Center.
"It's a fairness bill to protect all school districts," she said. "I'm not trying to alienate La Center. But I feel there should be an agreement."