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Ridgefield school bond failure paints picture of stark divide

Latest results show bond narrowly defeated

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:
3 Photos
The Ridgefield School District's $107 million school bond appears to have failed, pending certification of the election, raising continued concerns about space at schools. One option may be to add more portables, such as the ones here at Union Ridge Elementary School.
The Ridgefield School District's $107 million school bond appears to have failed, pending certification of the election, raising continued concerns about space at schools. One option may be to add more portables, such as the ones here at Union Ridge Elementary School. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Look at the Ridgefield School District as a whole, and you’ll see a squeaker of a failing bond election, with 59.15 percent of voters backing the measure. Drill deeper into the results, however, and the division in the district is more stark.

The latest results in the school’s $107 million bond proposal were released Tuesday. The election will be certified Friday. Had about 65 “no” voters changed their minds, the bond would have passed.

Precinct-level data shows that, in most parts of Ridgefield proper, there wouldn’t be many minds to change. Support crested 70 percent in some areas, well over the 60 percent needed to approve a facilities bond.

At the district’s south end, support is more scarce. In five precincts, less than 50 percent of voters supported the bond, which would have build new schools and improved existing facilities.

Georgianna Jones, campaign manager for the Citizens for Ridgefield Schools committee, expected those disparities, but she was surprised by how strong the gap was in some pockets of the district.

“We’re all part of Ridgefield,” Jones said. “The growth is coming, and it’s coming on that (south) end just like it’s already on the northern end.”

Question of culture

District Superintendent Nathan McCann said he “remains bullish” about the future success of a school bond in the district. The district ran a $77 million bond a year ago, which failed with 58.12 percent support.

“It’s closer this time than it was a year ago,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Still, he questions whether residents on the south end of the district feel as connected to the district as those who live within city limits. Jones agrees.

“If you don’t have kids in the system or go into downtown, you may not feel so much of a connection,” she said.

Take the subdivisions off North Pioneer Canyon Drive, for example, made up largely of the newer, single-family homes that have been trademark in Ridgefield’s growth in recent years. That precinct supported the bond by a rate of 75.8 percent.

At the opposite extreme is the Interstate 5/Highway 502 interchange, a more rural area marked by older homes. There, only 42.39 percent of voters supported the bond.

Still, it’s those southern neighborhoods that are the likeliest to see substantial growth in the coming years. At last estimate, Clark County demographer Eric Hovee estimated another 1,760 students would enter the district by 2023-2024. That’s more than 50 percent growth in the district, whose enrollment was 3,358 students in January, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

What that doesn’t reflect, Hovee notes, is the county’s recent decision to lift urban holding around the 179th Street and Interstate 5 interchange. Developers could build as many as 5,650 homes in that swath of land, many of them in the Ridgefield School District boundaries.

School impact fees on new development could be used to offset the growth in the school district, but state law prohibits districts from relying exclusively on impact fees to fund improvements.

Supermajority

Washington’s constitution requires a 60 percent supermajority for approval of school bonds, which makes this year’s close results particularly heartbreaking to supporters of the bond.

“It was devastating, to say the least,” Jones said.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, along with school districts, have urged legislators to overturn that requirement. But doing so would take a constitutional amendment. That takes two-thirds approval of the amendment in the House and Senate, followed by a majority vote of the public.

Voters did that for school levies in 2007, allowing districts to pass taxes for operating costs at a simple majority. But the supermajority requirement for bonds, which was added to the Washington Constitution during World War II, is still in place.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want to support public education and don’t want to support higher taxes,” said Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel School District in Pierce County. That school district struggled to pass bonds for years, finally gaining approval a year ago.

Ridgefield was one of eight school districts in Washington this year that saw bonds fail despite winning more than majority support.

“If it was a simple majority, more of the bonds will pass,” Seigel said. Otherwise, “things will continue to deteriorate, and growth will continue to occur.”

“A simple majority is needed, period,” he said.

The Ridgefield School District Board of Directors will meet Tuesday for the first time since the Feb. 11 election, and it is faced with options that could include running the bond again this year. McCann this year described a series of increasingly “draconian measures” the district could adopt to accommodate growth, ranging from placing dozens of new portable classrooms, to running school on a split shift.

Jones acknowledged the tax fatigue residents may be feeling, particularly with the school funding whiplash of recent years. Still, she worries what the community may look like if the district is forced to make those choices.

“Ridgefield’s not going to be the town we all moved here for,” she said.

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