School district bonds voting requirements to remain the same

Supermajority still required after state Senate vote fails

OLYMPIA — School district bonds will still need 60 percent of the vote after a state Senate constitutional amendment failed to get the two-thirds vote required to pass.

The amendment received 28 votes in favor and 21 in opposition. The only Democrat in opposition to Senate Joint Resolution 8201 was Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

A school district bond is voted on by the public, usually to finance a building project.

During the Senate floor debate, many senators voiced their concerns with reducing the voting percentage threshold while others remained supportive.

Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, encouraged the Legislature to “tread with caution” when making changes to the state constitution.

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, supported the legislation and the choice it gives voters.

“To those who are concerned about the effect on taxpayers, I guess I would say, wow, all we are doing is empowering the taxpayers in school districts to decide through the democratic process whether they want to pay those taxes,” said Pedersen.

Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, represents the Bethel School District, which has “made itself kind of a poster child of the problem with this voting percentage.”

Bethel School District has been working to pass a bond since 2006, once failing by three-tenths of a percent, and has continued to fall short until February 2019, when in a special election the bond passed with 66.1 percent approval.

Conway encouraged support of the legislation, which he called an “opportunity to put schools at the forefront of our political agenda.”

Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said the 60 percent of the vote has been a “needed balance mechanism” to ensure that the rights of everyone involved are protected.

In February 2017, the Moses Lake School District passed a $135 million construction bond with 60.03 percent of the vote. Under the proposed constitutional change, the bond in Moses Lake would have passed with a large margin, but under the current law it passed by just .03 percent.

The validity of the election was challenged in 2018, the election results were upheld and the Moses Lake School Board recommended two new elementary schools and a “mini high school,” be built.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, noted that her opinion of this issue has changed over the course of her time in the Legislature and she currently cannot support amending the state’s constitution.

“We passed in Moses Lake a school bond by three votes and that was a 60 percent majority,” said Warnick. “The pathway, I think, for these schools to pass their bonds must be convincing the voters that this is what we need. Sell it. Get out there and work.”

In public testimony, at the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, school district representatives spoke on the difficulties they face to pass bonds, which frequently fail to pass by close margins.

Chair of the committee, Sen. Lisa Wellman, D- Mercer Island, spoke on the importance of addressing school bonds, what she believes to be a school safety issue.

“We have many school bonds that have not passed year after year after year, and these schools are really in trouble and these kids are really hurting,” said Wellman.

The amendment was requested by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. A similar version of this legislation has not made it out of committee in the House.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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