OLYMPIA — Three times in the past 13 months, Arlington public school leaders asked voters for help in replacing a middle school and improving security on campuses throughout the district.
All three times a majority of voters said yes to financing the work with a multi-million dollar bond.
Yet each of those proposed ballot measures failed because a simple majority isn’t enough. Under the state Constitution, school bonds must receive backing from a supermajority of at least 60 percent to pass. The best Arlington mustered in its three tries was 55 percent.
“Why does this unique bar continue to exist for school bonds?,” asked Brian Lewis, executive director of operations for the Arlington School District.
“We’re not alone. We understand that,” he said. “We also understand we have an obligation to do our best to provide a safe learning environment. A majority of voters supported the bond so why should we not be allowed to issue it?”
Lowering the threshold to a simple majority is a long-sought priority of the education establishment. It requires tweaking the Constitution which can only happen with a statewide vote.
“I’m disappointed in the legislators,” said Carol Andrews, president of the Everett School District Board of Trustees, adding it seemed “illogical” to leave in a place a provision that allows a minority of dissenters to block the desires of a majority.
It happened in the Everett district in 2018. A $330.6 million bond measure failed in spite of garnering support from 55.4 percent of voters.
Those dollars would have paid for a new high school and classrooms to ensure the district complies with state rules for smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. Now the district is trying to decide whether and when to try again.
“The state gives us mandates but not the tools to carry them out,” she said. “It feels frustrating.”
In last Tuesday’s floor debate on Senate Joint Resolution 8201, Democrats deemed the supermajority requirement an unfair and undemocratic barrier that hampers the ability of school districts to fully address the needs for new campuses, more classrooms and an array of other physical improvements.
Republicans said the high bar helps ensure taxpayers are not too easily saddled with long-term debt obligations. They said sometimes the threshold is not reached because a district sought too much money, did not do a good enough job informing voters of the needs, or was affected by other controversies.
In February, 15 districts had bond measures on the ballot. Ten passed and five — including Arlington’s — did not. In November, eight of 13 measures put in front of voters failed to reach the 60 percent plateau.
In Arlington, the February and November 2018 measures received 55 and 52 percent approval respectively.
School leaders responded by shrinking the size of the bond measure, creating a video to better demonstrate how the money would be spent and even created a calculator for voters to estimate how their tax bills would change. They still wound up with only 52.6 percent.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, said he routinely backs bond measures for his local school district but didn’t agree with revising the Constitution.
“Philosophically, I don’t think you change the rules because you’re not winning,” he said. “With this there’s a measure of reasonable protection for the taxpayer.”
Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, the majority floor leader, acknowledged Friday that Democrats knew going into the debate the measure would not pass.
Hearing the arguments of Republicans puts them in a better position to succeed when they try again next year, he said.
“We can see the issues to address,” he said. “I don’t want to still be talking about this in 2030. I want us to figure out a way to get there.”