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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Threshold for school bonds worth reconsidering

The Columbian
Published: February 21, 2019, 6:03am

About 58 percent of voters in the Ridgefield School District last week approved a $77 million bond for construction to ease overcrowding in the district. But under Washington law, that wasn’t enough.

The original state constitution, ratified in 1889, required a simple majority for approval of school construction bonds. The Legislature changed that to 60 percent in 1943 over concerns that property taxes were getting too high. Since then, districts in the state have had a difficult time garnering enough public support for new schools.

This year’s Legislature is considering a change to that requirement. A bill sponsored by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, would return the simple-majority threshold. Another bill, originating in the Senate, would require 55 percent of the vote for passage.

Regardless of how one feels about the 60 percent requirement, lawmakers should send a bill to the voters this year. The Columbian’s Editorial Board is not prepared to weigh in on a measure until we see the details on the ballot, but we believe the issue is so pressing that voters should have a say.

In order to change the state constitution, both chambers of the Legislature must support an amendment with a two-thirds majority. Voters then would have to approve it with a simple majority.

The need to consider such a change is clear. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, more than half of the 46 school bonds put before voters in 2018 failed despite receiving more than 50 percent of the vote — as Ridgefield’s did last week. In February of last year, 59 percent of Battle Ground voters voted in favor of a bond, but that wasn’t enough. Two months later, another attempt garnered 54 percent of the vote — again failing.

The argument in favor of keeping the 60 percent requirement is simple and compelling — it should be hard to raise taxes. Critics say if the need is great enough, administrators, teachers, parents, students and supporters should be able to make their case well enough to get 60 percent of the vote.

“These school districts are able to pass these bonds when they’re reasonable,” said Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center. “I don’t think we have the crisis at hand that some of these districts claim they have.”

Officials in Ridgefield might disagree; the district is expecting a 45 percent increase in enrollment by 2022. But concerns about overcrowding are not limited to the quickly growing Ridgefield area. Beginning next school year, all districts in the state will be required to decrease class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 17 students, meaning that school construction or the increased use of portable classrooms will be necessary.

Lawmakers last year approved sweeping legislation to remake the school funding system, but the supermajority requirement remains a roadblock for districts. “We’ve already decided that educating our students is a paramount duty of the state, and this is one piece that is left undone,” Stonier said.

Because of that, the arguments in favor of eliminating the supermajority also are compelling. With several Clark County districts failing to pass bonds despite widespread support, the votes represent tyranny of the minority. Is it fair for 41 percent of voters to overrule the other 59 percent? That is a question that should be put to voters.

Whether it is consideration of a simple majority or a 55 percent threshold, the public should have a robust discussion this fall about how much support must be needed to pass a school bond.