The difficult choices facing everyone in the Bethel School District
Susan McGuire’s first day on the job with the Bethel School District was Nov. 5. Her assignment: Teach 12 kindergarteners. Her classroom: a former staff lounge.
The lounge-turned-classroom, which only can be accessed by walking through the main office, is tucked into a corner of Chester H. Thompson Elementary School in Spanaway. Instead of a vending machine, there’s a reading nook. On the dishwasher — which couldn’t be removed — are magnetic letters used for forming words.
The district made the decision to renovate the space this month to reduce kindergarten class sizes. The move was part of an attempt to keep up with burgeoning enrollment.
“There’s a point where class sizes get so large, it’s no longer a quality learning environment — it becomes a traffic control problem,” Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel said.
The district hoped to address crowding problems by asking its voters to approve a $443 million bond issue this month. The measure would have paid for a brand new high school, two new elementary schools and remodels and expansions of one middle school and three elementary schools.
Despite receiving about 55 percent approval, it didn’t pass. Why? Because a state law passed during the World War II era to provide tax relief during wartime requires school bonds to receive 60 percent approval to pass.
That’s much too high, said Seigel, who’s been a longstanding proponent for changing state bond passage requirements to a simple majority — 50 percent plus one.
After this year’s elections, some legislators say change could be coming soon. Making bond passage easier for districts lies in the hands of Washington state legislators — but it also, once again, lies in the hands of voters.
Burgeoning enrollment a problem
In almost 40 years, the Bethel School District has passed four bond measures in 20 attempts.
The most recent was in 2006, and it passed with a handful of votes at 60.9 percent. Before that, a bond passed at 60.6 percent in 2001, the same year Seigel came to work for the district.
At the time, Bethel was crowded, but a priority was improving building conditions, which were reaching dangerous levels.
“They had problems with lead, with asbestos, E-coli in the water and massive amounts of toxic mold throughout buildings,” Seigel said.
When the bond was passed, that was fixed. What’s left now is overcrowding.
“We’re lucky from the standpoint of health. We’re OK health-wise, as far as buildings, but there are other (districts) out there that are not,” Seigel said.
This election season, 17 school bonds were placed on ballots statewide. Of those, five passed. If a simple majority was in place, 13 of those bonds would have passed. The Peninsula School District saw a $220 million bond measure aimed at easing overcrowding get more than 50 percent of the vote but fail in April.
Bethel is growing by an average of 300 kids per year. A growing population means more houses being built. Pierce County is expecting 60,000 people to move into unincorporated communities between now and 2030, The Puyallup Herald reported in 2017.
A quarter of Bethel’s student population, about 5,500 students, are in portables. There are 201 portables throughout the district.
Out of Bethel’s 17 elementary schools, only two can take more portables, and they’re both on the far south end of the district, the area with the least amount of crowding.
Thompson Elementary was built in 1969 and renovated in 2005. It was meant to house 650 students and is closing in on 800. It has three portables on its property — the most it can have in accordance with state law.
The school found extra space with the staff lounge to open a sixth kindergarten classroom, which were reaching sizes up to 28 students per class. McGuire, a teacher for 20 years, says she’s used to adapting to atypical classrooms.
“My very first year in the classroom was a similar situation — an overflow situation. We started in the school library,” she said. “This isn’t a new situation for me. It’s sad that we’re still having to do this.”
What does it take for change?
It’s been that way ever since.
“My view of the problem is this: We have people who have an entrenched idea that somehow 60 percent should be sacrosanct,” Seigel said. “It isn’t — the original constitution was 50 percent. It was changed in World War II for wartime purpose only. It’s been three quarters of a century since then, and it’s time.”
To change a 60 percent super majority — whether that’s to a 55 percent super majority or a 50 percent simple majority — the state Constitutional must be amended. For that to happen:
▪ Both the state Senate and the House of Representatives must approve the proposal by a two-thirds vote, and
▪ The amendment must be approved by a simple majority (50 percent) of voters on a general election ballot.
Last year, Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, proposed Senate Joint Resolution 8213, which would change bond passage to a 55 percent super majority rather than a 60 percent. The resolution died on the floor.
“The legislature has been trying to change this super majority,” said Senator Steve Conway, D-Tacoma. “We had Democratic support and not enough Republican support.”
Conway is adamant that something needs to be done to help Bethel School District. He’s one of the Senators representing the area in District 29.
“Bethel is in crisis,” Conway said in an interview with The News Tribune. “This is a huge school district, and it’s growing rapidly and we need to help them. We need to help these families out there.”
Conway supports reducing the percentage needed to approve a bond, but not all legislators feel the same.
“I would say all Democrats support changing this, but it’s going to take some Republicans to make it happen,” Conway said.
A change of the super majority also has the support of State Superintendent Chris Reykdal.
“Over the years, this requirement has left too many school districts without the funds necessary to ensure their school buildings are safe, effective, and healthy. My office will propose legislation to remove the supermajority requirement for school bonds,” Reykdal said in an email statement to The News Tribune.
“The State does not adequately fund school construction; they rely on local voters,” he continued. “Simple majority is a fundamental democratic principal; it’s time to give voters more ability to support the students and educators in buildings that work for their community.”
Concerns about changing the super majority stem from increasing property taxes, said Senator Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, who is on the Senate Early Learning K-12 committee. Part of his district — District 25 — encompasses the Bethel School District.
“You’ve got a lot of people who feel like they are burdened with growing property taxes,” Zeiger said. “I believe going to a simple majority increases the likelihood that property taxes go up in some districts.”
Conway said he understands that point of view.
“The problems this year, as Hans said — and I would agree with him — is (that) the rising value of property is driving up property taxes, and there are a lot of people who are concerned about that,” Conway said.
If the super majority is to change, it will need support from both parties.
“I think there’s going to be a strong push to go to simple majority for bond passage,” Zeiger said in an interview with The News Tribune this week. “I think certainly there’s more of a willingness to go to (a simple majority) on the Democratic side than there is the Republican side.”
New boundaries, year-round school possible
If McGuire had to guess, the failing of this year’s bond has to do with voter exhaustion.
“Unfortunately, when it’s election time, people are bombarded with political ads and information and pretty much tune a lot of it out, which is unfortunate, because in this case they need to understand the reality. And the reality of 27 and 28 kindergarteners starting school is chaos,” she said.
Now, another reality Bethel parents and students are facing is redrawing of boundaries, moving more students to the less-crowded southern area of the district.
“We’re just maxed out,” Seigel said. “What you do is you basically end up cramming more kids in each classroom because you don’t have any other alternative.”
Bethel was a year-round school district between 1974 and 1981 — also due to failed bonds. It’s possible it could happen again. The Bethel School Board passed a resolution in April allowing the district to search for solutions to the overcrowding problem, including developing a plan for year-round school. The plan, if approved by the board, could be implemented as soon as 2021.
But year-round school is not the district’s first choice. It’s more expensive, and buildings deteriorate faster. To save money, transportation could be reduced.
“There are a whole bunch of cascading consequences,” Seigel said about year-round school.
As of Friday, the Pierce County auditor’s office expected they’d have 95 percent of the votes in. Bethel’s bond is currently failing with a 55.59 percent approval by voters.
Seigel isn’t optimistic it will pass.
There are things the district can do to survive, but none of them are optimal. Seigel believes a change needs to be made in the bond passage process, and it starts with the Legislature.
“If we had a 50 percent requirement, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now,” he said.