Sue Badinger serves lunch to students at Lynndale Elementary School in February in Lynnwood. In building Lynndale, the Edmonds School District and its taxpayers spent $27.6 million, with the state contributing $4.4 million, about 13 percent of the school’s construction costs. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file photo)

Sue Badinger serves lunch to students at Lynndale Elementary School in February in Lynnwood. In building Lynndale, the Edmonds School District and its taxpayers spent $27.6 million, with the state contributing $4.4 million, about 13 percent of the school’s construction costs. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file photo)

Editorial: State needs to help local districts build schools

A land swap could add to state school construction funds, but it’s a far cry from what’s needed.

By The Herald Editorial Board

A proposed swap of land between the state and a residential developer — 1.5 acres in Arlington on which a Bartell Drug store operates for 27 acres of undeveloped forestland near Silverdale — could provide a boost to the state trust that provides a portion of the funds used to build and renovate public schools throughout the state.

Pending appraisals of the property and a decision by the state Board of Natural Resources, the state would turn over the 27 acres in Silverdale, from which timber was last harvested 30 years ago, to a developer of multi-family apartments. The land, situated near residential neighborhoods, schools and the Kitsap Mall, is zoned for high-density residential development. In return, the state would get the Arlington property, and would continue the current lease, bringing in an additional $483,000 annually. Currently 26 other similar ground leases managed by the state generate about $9 million annually for the state’s trust land funds.

“This land swap is a perfect way to take a property that hasn’t generated any money in a generation and turn it into a reliable source of revenue for school construction,” Kenny Ocker, communications manager for the agency’s product sales and leasing division, said in a report Tuesday by The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield.

That’s not an insignificant boost for the trusts the Department of Natural Resources administers, the largest of which includes 1.8 million acres of forestland, agricultural land and other properties managed for state school construction needs. Other smaller trusts benefit the state’s universities and capitol, corrections and other public agency buildings.

But that trust money can get lost in the demand for school construction needs throughout the state. Earlier this year, the two-year capital budget approved by the Legislature allocated $1.1 billion for K-12 school construction. That figure itself, however, is dwarfed by the funding that local school districts are expected to shoulder.

In 2016, according to figures from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state spent a total of $312 million on school construction throughout the state, while local school districts — and their property taxpayers — paid more than double the state’s contribution, $666.6 million. That year, Edmonds School District spent $27.6 million to build Lynndale Elementary, with the state pitching in $4.4 million, about 13 percent of the project’s cost.

Because of the formula the state uses to allocate state funds, the contributions between state and local districts can differ widely.

In 2015, local districts spent a combined $818.7 million on school construction, against the $229.3 million from the state, about 22 percent of the cost for all school construction.

State lawmakers have generally defended that level of school construction support from the state. The most recent Citizen’s Guide to K-12 Finance, prepared by Senate Committee Services staff for the Senate Ways and Means and Early Learning & K-12 committees, holds that since statehood, the state constitution “has assumed that school district voters will incur debt to construct school facilities.”

But in the past the state has provided a greater percentage of funding for building schools. In 1992, for example, it matched local district contributions nearly 50-50, according to a 2008 OSPI study. That figure has steadily declined to the similar current levels shown above.

The additional hurdle for school districts is that even that contribution from the state is contingent on the successful passage of the local school district bond elections that provide the funding for the local contribution. And school bonds require a 60 percent supermajority for approval, which has often delayed or denied school construction projects throughout the state, including recent bond failures for the Arlington and Everett school districts. In both cases, the bond campaigns won support from majorities — 55 percent of voters — but failed to reach the 60 percent mark.

Of the state’s 295 school districts, 35 of them — about 12 percent — have chronically failed to meet the 60 percent supermajority requirement.

Typically, when districts lose bond elections, they punt and make do with portables, an option we’ve previously argued is less expensive but not necessarily fiscally sound: At $300,000 to $450,000 a pop, the portables are not cheap and have a shorter service life than traditional school buildings. And the portables present problems for school security and usually mean a loss of campus space for other programs and facilities.

Legislation this year was proposed to allow bond passage with a simple majority, rather than allowing a minority to determine whether a school district can renovate and build new schools.

If lawmakers can’t find the funds to increase the state’s share of school construction, in the coming session they should end the supermajority requirement and give school districts a fair shot at serving their students.

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