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The 60 percent supermajority requirement to pass school bonds is “not democracy,” and it’s time for state legislators to make it fair for districts to update and improve their buildings, said Castle Rock Superintendent Jim Mabbott.

Mabbott is one of 30 school superintendents in Southwest Washington asking state legislators for a constitutional amendment to drop the voter approval requirements for school bonds to a simple 50 percent majority.

“There is no candidate in this state, including state legislators, who need 60 percent to be able to win,” Mabbott said. He added that “it’s very difficult to argue that the minority of voters should decide what happens” in an election.

Democrats this week introduced bills into both houses that would drop the supermajority requirement, but they face long odds. They need two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate. Even though Democrats hold majorities in both houses, their margins aren’t enough to pass an amendment without bipartisan support.

The amendment also would need simple majority approval by all Washington voters. In recent years, though, voters in this state have been more apt to make it harder to raise taxes than to make it easier, as shown by the overwhelming approval of the 2014 Tim Eyman initiative to require a two-thirds legislative vote for all tax increases (it was declared unconstitutional in 2016).

Historically, Republicans have opposed similar measures, said Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who support this year’s bill.

Jami Lund, senior policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, said the supermajority requirement helps protect taxpayers from a school district “obligating people for decades” to pay back the loans of their predecessors. 

State Rep. Jim Walsh, a Aberdeen Republican whose district includes much of Cowlitz County, opposes the amendment. The supermajority requirement, he says “forces school districts to make a real strong case about why they need your money.”

Bonds difficult to pass

Bonds are a form of loan a school district pays back through property taxes. The repayment period for most bonds is between 10 and 20 years. So they’re used to raise large amounts of money that annual tax revenues can’t provide.

The Washington State Parent Teacher Association reported that only 46 percent of the school bond proposals put before voters between 2006 and 2017 passed. Those odds were in play in Castle Rock last year, when the district’s first proposed bond measure in more than 20 years failed despite receiving a 55 percent “yes” vote in April. The Longview district faced a similar circumstance in November 2017, when it feel just short of passing a $121 million bond even though the measure received 58 percent of the vote.

Most politicians consider winning 55 percent of the vote a “landslide victory,” Mabbott said. But for the school district, that same number meant failure.

“We felt defeated after a ‘landslide victory.’ We couldn’t build any buildings after a ‘landslide victory,’ ” Mabbott said.

The constitutional “supermajority” requirement dates back to the Great Depression and World War II, according to the Seattle Times. Economic hardship and concern that war-time workers would move away from local cities and leave the local residents to pay for levies and bonds ultimately led to a 1944 constitutional amendment putting the supermajority threshold in place.

Districts have been fighting the state to change it back for years. The supermajority requirement was dropped in 2007 for regular maintenance and operations levies after more than a decade of discussion.

And now educators are back at the plate to advocate for less stringent bond passage requirements.

“It just make sense that it would be a (simple) majority like everything else,” said Longview Superintendent Dan Zorn.

Takko agreed that districts should be allowed to build new schools “if a strong majority of people want that.”

“A lot of schools are in some pretty sad shape, that were built years ago and really need to be updated,” Takko said. “There are people who don’t like taxes. I don’t like paying them any more than the next guy, but we have to have a society that functions, and one of the way we do that is to have education that functions.”

Rich Wood, spokesperson for the state teachers union, said educators support dropping the bond threshold. For them, it means eliminating the barriers districts face when improving school safety, he said.

“It’s an outdated requirement when we look at the needs students have today. … We need to have safe, modernized school facilities and school buildings for our students,” Wood said. “If the ceiling is caving in on them and it’s moldy or wet or cold … then that’s a problem. Students need to be safe so they can focus on learning.”

Zorn shared a similar sentiment, noting that the district “has a responsibility to take care of what we have,” in terms of buildings.

“To fill those needs, we have that bond option. And if we are able to get those passed, then we are able to provide much better facilities for our kids,” Zorn said.

Earning two-thirds support of the House and the Senate is “a pretty high bar,” and previous bills like this have failed to meet, Takko said. But he has greater hope this year that the amendment might pass because the proposal has won support across the aisle.

“I was told there is Republican support, which is usually where the lack of support was (before),” Takko said.

Middle ground

There’s also the added element of compromise, where legislators of both parties might agree to meet in the middle and drop the requirement to 55 percent. While educators might not be as satisfied with a 55 percent requirement, “anything less than 60 will make them happy,” Takko said.

But some legislators have a much different stance. 20th District Rep. Ed Orcutt, a Kalama Republican, said lowering the requirement would mean “asking taxpayers to waive their protection” from rising tax rates.

“I opposed going to simple majority for levies, so I oppose it for bonds as well,” Orcutt said.

Superintendents remain positive that this might be the year the bond threshold drops, Mabbott said. Legislators are “more keenly aware” that districts are struggling to pass bonds with the supermajority requirement in place — and their buildings are suffering for it, he said.

“With the number of districts in need of bonds passing, clearly something needs to change.”

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