Election Day could have given the Ridgefield School District cause to celebrate, with a majority of voters — 57.9 percent — supporting a school bond that would have paid for the construction of new schools in the rapidly growing district.
But in Washington, a majority doesn’t cut it if you want to build new schools. Under the state constitution, bonds measures like those used to pay for school construction take 60 percent support.
Some lawmakers in Olympia seek to change that this Legislative session. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 1184, which would launch the process of amending the state constitution to allow school construction bonds to pass with a simple majority.
At a public hearing in Olympia Thursday, Stonier said school directors have urged her for years to make this issue a priority.
“We’ve already decided that educating our students is a paramount duty of the state and this is one piece that is left undone,” she said.
There are similar versions of the bill working their way through the Legislature, as well as a version sponsored by Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, that would drop the approval threshold to 55 percent rather than a simple majority.
Changing the 60 percent supermajority requirement will require a constitutional amendment, meaning the laws must past out of the Legislature with a two-thirds vote in both chambers. Then the amendment goes to Washington voters, who must approve the new law by a majority vote.
A frequent occurrence
What happened to Ridgefield this year is not uncommon. Half of the 46 bonds school districts ran in 2018 failed but received more than 50 percent support, according to data maintained by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Battle Ground Public Schools has run bonds three times since 2016 aiming to relieve overcrowding and outdated facilities at the district’s south end. All failed with more than 50 percent of the vote.
After repeated failures, the district school board voted to change school boundaries to reshuffle students out of particularly overcrowded campuses.
“It creates such inequities with the quality of education,” said Sue Cranke, co-chair of Battle Ground Citizens for Better Schools.
Cranke, her co-chair Cathy Golik, and Battle Ground school board member Mavis Nickels testified in Olympia on Thursday. Nickels, who announced her retirement from the board last week, said she wants every student in the district to have the same opportunities as others in the district.
“When some of our buildings are unsafe, unsecurable, old and inadequate to serve our students, something’s wrong,” Nickels said.
Liv Finne, director of the center for education at the conservative Washington Policy Center, disagrees.
“It’s been decades that we’ve had a supermajority requirement for passing bonds for putting on debt,” Finne said. “You don’t do this lightly.”
Finne said the supermajority requirement prevents districts from proposing construction agendas “too expensive for the community to afford.” Districts that consistently fail to approve bond measures ought to consider smaller proposals rather than being “eager to build themselves Taj Mahals and have someone else pay for it,” she said.
“These school districts are able to pass these bonds when they’re reasonable,” Finne said. “I don’t think we have the crisis at hand that some of these districts claim they have.”
Ridgefield Superintendent Nathan McCann acknowledged the arguments against dropping the bond threshold. By email, he suggested the versions that would require 55 percent approval are a fair compromise, and praised Stonier’s bill for including a voter turnout requirement of 40 percent or more of those who voted in the previous general election.
“As a society we talk often about encouraging people to get involved in the process, but too many elections are decided due to very low turnout,” McCann said by email. “That is not good for democracy or for our communities.”
Still, Ridgefield is expecting a 45 percent increase in enrollment by 2022, and district officials say they need new schools to accommodate those students.
“Going back to our case, we clearly need additional school infrastructure and the majority of voters agreed,” McCann said.
Columbian reporter Adam Littman contributed to this report.