Here’s a tale of overflowing classrooms and unbuilt schools:
Jack lives in Puyallup and hates the fact that the school district must shoehorn more students into portables than any other district in the state. He doesn’t like seeing sixth-graders shifted to junior high schools for lack of elementary classrooms.
The problem, Jack knows, is that Puyallup School District hasn’t been able to get a school-construction bond approved since 2004. He votes for bond measures.
Jill also lives in Puyallup. She cites stories of mismanagement in the district, but mainly she opposes new taxes. She votes against bond measures. She and like-minded anti-tax folks have had a long winning streak.
They have an undemocratic advantage, though. The Washington Constitution requires a 60 percent supermajority to approve school bonds. That means, effectively, that bond opponents have half again the voter power of bond supporters. Jack gets one vote; Jill gets one-and-a-half votes.
As a result, Puyallup’s 2013 bond measure won more than 55 percent of the vote but it failed because it didn’t swing the supermajority.
The same pattern has been playing out in Gig Harbor, where the rapidly growing Peninsula School District hasn’t been able to persuade a supermajority to pay for needed schools, science labs and security measures.
Across the state, only about one-third of school construction measures pass from year to year. Not all the losers deserve to win, but many critical school measures win a majority and lose only because the constitution gives opponents extra voting power.
That part of the constitution must change. The Legislature can accomplish that by putting a proposed amendment – House Joint Resolution 4210 – on the ballot.
HJR 4210 would let school bonds pass with simple majorities. As a safeguard against stealth elections, the supermajority requirement would be relaxed only for measures on the November ballot.
The 60 percent requirement dates from an era in which few citizens owned homes or other property. The fear was that the majority would put heavy tax burdens on property owners. But now a supermajority of Washingtonians – more than 60 percent – are homeowners. The old rationale no longer makes sense.
The Legislature is charged with fully funding basic education. Prodded by the state supreme court, lawmakers are gearing up to pay for such essentials as textbooks, bus transportation and other basics it traditionally foisted off on local school districts.
Some legislators are also looking for ways the state can do more to finance the school buildings themselves, which are almost as essential as teachers.
They’re looking for ways to pay for all-day kindergarten in all communities, which will require the creation of new classrooms in most districts. They’re also moving to increase the state’s share of school construction funding from 20 percent to 30 percent.
But it looks as if local districts will still be chiefly responsible for building most classrooms and keeping roofs over the heads of their teachers and students.
If the districts continue to bear that responsibility, they shouldn’t be left at a deliberate disadvantage. A state that’s really serious about funding education doesn’t give opponents of new schools 50 percent more ballot power than people who want enough classrooms for kids.