The Bethel School District's failure to pass its fourth school construction bond in three years illustrates why the state Legislature needs to scrap the requirement that school construction bonds win at least 60 percent of the vote.
For years, students in the Bethel School District have spilled out of school buildings and jammed into nearby portable classrooms. About 200 portables now house a quarter of the district’s student population, or about 5,500 kids.
Yet in November, the Pierce County district’s latest attempt to pass a school-construction bond failed once again — this time by the thinnest of margins, with support coming in at 59.22 percent.
Bethel’s failure to pass its fourth school construction bond in three years illustrates why the state Legislature needs to scrap the requirement that school construction bonds win at least 60 percent of the vote. This unreasonably high bar for passing school bonds dooms many important projects to failure, contributing to overflowing classrooms and schools in disrepair. This in turn affects the quality of education in dozens of districts across the state, as children can’t do their best learning inside crumbling, unsafe buildings, or when they’re packed in like sardines.
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“All of our buildings are over capacity for what they were initially designed,” said Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel, who said his district is growing by about 300 students per year.
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“We are just getting more and more kids, and cramming more and more kids into the same place.”
Ensuring school districts can build new classrooms has never been more important. Starting next year, the Legislature is requiring school districts to lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 17 students, a reform that has been in the works for more than a decade. Completing this task will require additional classroom space. Yet the supermajority requirement for passing bonds remains a perpetual impediment.
This year, 46 school bond measures were put on the ballot statewide, according to the state superintendent’s office. Of the 28 bonds that were defeated, 24 of them failed despite amassing more than 50 percent of the vote. These included school bonds in Everett and Arlington, as well as in school districts such as Wenatchee and Toppenish.
Even slightly lowering the bar for passing bonds would make a huge difference. This year, 12 school construction bonds failed despite winning the approval of more than 55 percent of local voters. If lawmakers cannot agree on establishing a simple majority requirement for passing school bonds, they should pass a compromise that sets 55 percent as the new standard.
State Sen. Mark Mullet, an Issaquah Democrat working on that compromise measure, predicted it will be “a heavy lift,” since the change involves amending the state constitution. But he it’s said it’s important to “give districts flexibility on this, so it is easier to build schools.”
At the same time, state lawmakers must ensure they also provide ample matching funds for school construction in the their upcoming capital budget. The Legislature approved about $1 billion for school construction in its last capital budget; a similar investment may be necessary for the next two-year budget cycle. Legislative leaders should examine whether the formula used to award matching grants should be updated, so that it better reflects actual construction costs.
Only by making progress on all of these fronts can the Legislature finally fulfill its longstanding promise of lowering class sizes for the state’s youngest students.