It's time to return to a simple majority to pass a school construction bond.
Washington state’s Constitution, ratified in 1889, required a simple majority to pass a ballot measure authorizing bonds to pay for school construction. The Legislature changed that requirement to 60 percent in 1943 because of concerns about property taxes getting too high.
The Legislature should put the threshold back to 50 percent. Too many school districts struggle to pass a school bond.
Last year, 46 school-bond measures were put on the ballot statewide, according to the state superintendent’s office. Of the 28 measures defeated, 24 earned more than 50 percent of the vote. And 12 of those failed with the approval of more than 55 percent of local voters.
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School districts need money to keep their school buildings from crumbling and to accommodate growing student populations. But some fail repeatedly to pass school construction bonds.
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Puyallup Superintendent Tim Yeomans says it generally takes five tries to pass a bond in his school district, which uses more than 200 portable classrooms. Art Jarvis, interim superintendent in the Peninsula School District who has worked in a number of Washington districts, says passing a bond is nearly impossible in Peninsula, which has the worst facilities he has ever worked in. A bond measure on the 2018 ballot barely failed with about 59 percent of the vote. The Bethel School District, which houses about a quarter of its students in portables, failed in November to pass its fourth school construction bond measure in three years, with yes votes totaling 59.22 percent.
The supermajority requirement sets an unreasonably high bar for passing school bonds. Construction money was not part of the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision. But crumbling, overcrowded and unsafe buildings do represent an equity issue when some school districts can afford to build and repair their buildings and others cannot.
Growing districts have struggled with this issue for years. But beginning in 2019, the Legislature will require all school districts to decrease class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 17 students. Accomplishing that goal will require more classroom space — or more portables in districts that can’t pass a construction-bond issue. The 60 percent vote requirement for school bonds is a huge hurdle for smaller class sizes, a change that has been anticipated for a decade.
The Legislature is considering two constitutional-amendment proposals: one would decrease the requirement to pass a school construction bond to a simple majority, one would require 55 percent of the vote.
Washington should restore the state Constitution to its original intent and require a simple majority to pass a school bond measure.