Jaime Benedict, who works as a substitute teacher, waves to drivers on the corner of Mukilteo Speedway and Harbor Pointe Boulevard while holding a sign in support of a bond proposal for Mukilteo School District in February 2020 in Mukilteo. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Jaime Benedict, who works as a substitute teacher, waves to drivers on the corner of Mukilteo Speedway and Harbor Pointe Boulevard while holding a sign in support of a bond proposal for Mukilteo School District in February 2020 in Mukilteo. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Bar set unfairly high for passage of school bonds

Requiring 60 percent approval denies too many students the schools and facilities they deserve.

By The Herald Editorial Board

School districts in Snohomish County saw a mixed bag in last week’s elections for levy and bond measure requests; of six levy requests for educational programs or capital projects, four measures passed; but of three bond elections for school construction only one school district won voter approval.

The Edmonds School District swept its two requests, winning approval with about 65 percent of the vote for a $594 million bond for new schools and improvements across the district, and renewal of a four-year technology capital levy.

Meanwhile, voters in the Arlington School District approved two replacement levies for educational programs and capital improvements, but voted down a $95 million bond request that would have replaced Post Middle School, built in 1981.

Sultan School District suffered the other bond failure, with about 53 percent of voters rejecting an $80 million bond measure to build a new elementary school and renovate two other schools.

Statewide, according to figures from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, of 21 school district bond elections, only seven were passing.

It’s not that school districts hadn’t made a case to voters regarding their students’ needs. That’s especially true of school construction and renovation costs, for which districts — and their property taxpayers — are expected to pick up a significant portion of the necessary investments.

Arlington’s Post Middle School, for example, as well as being built to the educational standards of four decades ago, is suffering from drainage problems. Sultan, seeking to upgrade facilities and relieve overcrowding, hoped to build a new K-4 elementary school and modernize two elementary schools, one for K-4 and the other for fifth- and sixth-graders. Edmonds, thanks to its voters, can now look forward to replacing three elementary schools and a middle school built between 1958 and 1970.

The needs of school districts to fund their capital needs — for new construction, renovation, safety and maintenance needs, as well as technology investments — is funded jointly by state and local property tax payments.

Districts have two options for that capital funding: seeking capital levies that require only the support of a simple majority of voters, or bonds that require a supermajority of approval by 60 percent of voters. Routinely, capital levies are used for technology, maintenance and smaller construction needs. Bonds are used for major construction projects, such as new or renovated schools.

Whether districts can qualify for state funding for major construction projects — like the projects in Edmonds, Arlington and Sultan — those hinge on first winning voter approval of local bond measures. Edmonds now qualifies for state funding. Arlington — with nearly 54 percent approval — and Sultan — with 47 percent — won’t; at least until they can convince a supermajority to approve bond requests.

That joint responsibility is not likely to change any time soon. Last year, the state Supreme Court heard a lawsuit from the Wahkaikum School District in southwest Washington that said districts deserved more direct support for school construction, as part of the state’s “paramount duty” toward education that is outlined in the state constitution. The court unanimously rejected the suit, reading the constitution to outline a shared responsibility among the state and local taxpayers for school construction and other capital costs.

Not that the justices, even in a unanimous ruling, didn’t see some unfairness in that arrangement. So noted Associate Chief Justice Charles Johnson, in a concurring opinion:

“The existing program does not help the districts that need it the most because they cannot pass the necessary bond,” he wrote. “The State should not selectively deny funds for high-quality education environments based on the district’s lack of local monetary support.”

The result is that districts are left with aging schools — with costs for construction and maintenance that are only increasing — and the expectation that they must convince a supermajority of voters to approve taxes that can provide the schools that meet the needs of students and qualify for the state’s support.

Not that the need is going unnoticed by state lawmakers. Budget writers in the state Senate released their proposed supplemental capital budget on Friday, which includes $121.5 million for construction, maintenance and improvements for K-12 schools, money that is on top of the $871 million that was allocated last year. Much of that money would go toward smaller districts and tribal schools, the Washington State Standard reported.

But if that joint responsibility is going to remain — with the caveat that districts first must have the approval of their own voters — then the threshold for that approval should not remain at the high bar of 60 percent.

Although the 60 percent supermajority requirement is in the state constitution, it hasn’t always been so. Originally, the constitution required only a simple majority. That changed in 1944, in response to concern that the expected end of World War II would bring an exodus of defense workers from the state, leaving a smaller population with a heavier tax burden. (The opposite happened, of course; the state’s population grew from 1.7 million in 1940 to 3.4 million by 1970, and is 7.8 million today.)

One of two proposals before state lawmakers remains in consideration, with the legislative session more than half-way through its 60-day session. Senate Joint Resolution 8207 proposes an amendment to the constitution that would lower the approval threshold for school bonds to a simple majority, the same level that we use to elect government officials, pass initiatives and authorize other tax measures.

The path toward a state constitutional amendment is steep. Along with winning two-thirds approval in each chamber of the Legislature, it also must be approved by a majority of the state’s voters. But that challenge was met once before; for school levies. Voters in 2007, approved an amendment that lowered the threshold for school levies to a simple majority, passing with 50.61 percent.

State voters, as they are likely to consider other consequential initiatives this fall, should also have the opportunity to grant greater fairness regarding school capital needs vital to students’ educations. Lawmakers should provide that opportunity.

The supermajority requirement — which provides an unfair advantage to a minority of voters — is shortchanging students in many districts, denying them a learning environment that others enjoy and stopping many of the state’s smaller districts from leveraging local voters’ approval to get access to state funding.

Of the 21 districts in the state that sought bond approval in the Feb. 13 election, 18 — rather than seven — would have passed their measures with only a simple majority. Arlington’s bond request would have been approved. Sultan’s would not have.

As recent elections have shown, winning a simple majority of local voters isn’t assured and won’t mean that school districts will win approval for every request.

Rather, it puts school bonds on par with the expectations for school levies as voters consider the requests and each district’s history of responsibility to taxpayers, communities and students.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Liz Skinner, right, and Emma Titterness, both from Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, speak with a man near the Silver Lake Safeway while conducting a point-in-time count Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, in Everett, Washington. The man, who had slept at that location the previous night, was provided some food and a warming kit after participating in the PIT survey. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Among obstacles, hope to curb homelessness

Panelists from service providers and local officials discussed homelessness’ interwoven challenges.

Comment: Are we getting our money’s worth from our taxes?

Most Europeans pay higher taxes, but add up our taxes and what we pay out of pocket and we’re seeing less.

FILE - In this photo taken Oct. 2, 2018, semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee is joining state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to propose limits to magazine capacity and a ban on the sale of assault weapons. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Editorial: ‘History, tradition’ poor test for gun safety laws

Judge’s ruling against the state’s law on large-capacity gun clips is based on a problematic decision.

This combination of photos taken on Capitol Hill in Washington shows Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., on March 23, 2023, left, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on Nov. 3, 2021. The two lawmakers from opposing parties are floating a new plan to protect the privacy of Americans' personal data. The draft legislation was announced Sunday, April 7, 2024, and would make privacy a consumer right and set new rules for companies that collect and transfer personal data. (AP Photo)
Editorial: Adopt federal rules on data privacy and rights

A bipartisan plan from Sen. Cantwell and Rep. McMorris Rodgers offers consumer protection online.

Students make their way through a portion of a secure gate a fence at the front of Lakewood Elementary School on Tuesday, March 19, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. Fencing the entire campus is something that would hopefully be upgraded with fund from the levy. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Levies in two north county districts deserve support

Lakewood School District is seeking approval of two levies. Fire District 21 seeks a levy increase.

Comment: Racial divide over O.J.’s trial is as fresh as ever

The trial divided friends and communities on issues of race and justice.

Saunders: Biden’s student debt relief passes buck to taxpayers

Forgiving loans doesn’t make them disappear, it just transfers the debt to taxpayers.

A Brockton firefighter lifts a protective turnout coat onto a firetruck at Station 1, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Brockton, Mass. Firefighters around the country are concerned that gear laced with the toxic industrial compound PFAS could be one reason why cancer rates among their ranks are rising. The chemical, which has been linked to health problems including several types of cancer, is used in turnout gear to repel water and other substances when fighting a fire. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Commentary: Fighting the threat of ‘forever chemicals’

New EPA standards will require the removal of PFAS chemicals from water. Here’s why that’s important.

Benefits outweigh risks of grizzlies in North Cascades

After moving back to the Pascific Northwest, I began a 40-year long… Continue reading

If you drink alcohol, do so mindfully

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, a time to think about your alcohol… Continue reading

Comment: Rule must change to allow dialysis as end-of-life care

An outdated rule may change to allow patients in palliative care to receive the comfort of kidney dialysis.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.