Passing school bonds and levies are no easy assignment. Just ask Yelm Community Schools or any property-poor school district in Washington state attempting to rebuild their facilities or improve their curriculum.
But two new senate bills introduced to the state Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education committee could lower the passage rate school districts need to approve school bonds.
Senate Bill 5252 and Senate Bill 5066 would amend state constitution to allow passage of school district bonds lower than that of the current supermajority, or 60 percent, required to pass. According to the bills’ digests, SB 5252 would provide passage of school bonds with 55 percent approval and SB 5066 would provide passage of school bonds with a simple majority.
The goal of these bills are to allow schools to pass more construction bonds and be eligible for School Construction Assistance Program.
Sen. Lisa Wellman (D - Mercer Island), a sponsor of the two bills and chair of the Early Learning & K-12 Education committee, was not immediately available for comment due to a late policy cut-off session.
Yelm Community Schools Superintendent Brian Wharton testified to the Washington state senate and house Early Learning & K-12 Education Committees earlier this month. In his testimony, Wharton detailed how the supermajority rule puts smaller districts at a disadvantage.
“The supermajority penalizes property-poor districts and ultimately results in higher costs for fewer buildings; it’s a double hit that way,” Wharton said, addressing the senate committee. “It isn’t that we lack support in Yelm, as our 59 percent result last year showed, but property tax initiatives are very difficult for property-poor districts.”
Since 2000, Yelm Community Schools has run five bonds — all of which have failed with at least 50 percent support. Wharton said these bills, while not likely to pass, would help communities that support these construction efforts pay for them at a lower cost.
While this year’s bond for Yelm Community Schools is likely to pass, the goal of surpassing the 60-percent threshold came at a price.
“Ultimately we got one less building for $23 million dollars,” Wharton said of 2018’s failed bond measure. “Look how much buying power we lost by running it a year later.”
The supermajority likely cost the district three school buildings and millions of dollars in opportunity costs since 2000.
While Wharton believes he was well-heard in both the senate and house committees, he said he’s not holding his breath on either bills passing; there’s just too many hurdles.
And Wharton wasn’t the only one to testify. The committee heard testimony from school districts from Battle Ground, Sequim, Reardan-Edwall and Bethel.
Bethel has failed nine times going back into the 1980s and in 2001 had the most number of students in portable buildings than in any school in the state, according to testimony by Superintendent Tom Seigel.
Like Yelm, districts statewide have also encountered bond failure rates by very slim margins, according to testimony.