Matt Driscoll

Kids are hurting. The Legislature needs to do away with the onerous ‘supermajority’ rule

The kids at Bethel High School have nicknames for the cramped spaces they’re forced to endure and horror stories of a facility failing around them.

There’s “The Bunker,” a former girls’ locker room which, after a second life as an JROTC air-rifle range, now serves as a sports medicine classroom

Then there’s “The Bottleneck,” a section of hallway with four entry points that, during passing period, becomes so jammed with students that kids liken it “a stoplight without the light.”

“Every car has to just ram through their all at once,” one student said of “The Bottleneck.” Another, 17-year-old senior Samantha Waycaster, recalled the specific instructions incoming freshman receive about how to avoid it.

In a high school with 1,725 students this school year — well above the 1,462 it was intended for — issues like these are unavoidable and inevitable. Similarly, tales of garbage cans positioned inside to catch the rain, failing heating systems and collapsed ceilings are par for the course at a high school that opened in 1952 and hasn’t been updated since George H.W. Bush’s first year in the Oval Office.

What’s not unavoidable is the outdated amendment to the state constitution that all but prevents a growing district like Bethel from doing anything about it.

Twenty-one times over the last 38 years Bethel has placed a school bond issue on the ballot.

Only four of those bonds have passed, even though each has received more than 50 percent of the vote.

Addressing this problem, at long last, should be a focus for the state Legislature this session.

Simply put, allowing voters the chance to do away with the required 60 percent “supermajority” for passing school construction bonds is long overdue. The amendment dates back to World War II — and is rooted in a fear of taxes — though it hasn’t served a viable purpose beyond usurping democracy and the common good since that time.

The kids attending Bethel School District schools — now more than 20,000 of them, attending 27 schools — know this all too well.

For lawmakers in Olympia, the question is simple: What more do you need to know?

“With the 60 percent supermajority, you’re basically allowing a minority of voters to decide the fate of kids in the school district,” said Tom Seigel, Bethel’s superintendent since 2001. “We’re talking about kids’ lives. They only have one chance to go through each grade.”

Statewide problem

Bethel is just one of many districts where the supermajority rule has wreaked havoc, though the district’s latest failure — by a mere 307 votes last November — might be the freshest wound.

“I thought maybe they would care more about us and not more about themselves and just thinking about how much money it’s going to cost them,” said Kamiko Hagans, a 17-year-old Bethel High School junior, of the latest bond failure. “I have a little brother that goes to North Star (Elementary), and I want him to have the best education he can have, because he means lots to me. …

“It hurts that people don’t care.”

Hagans’ disillusionment was focused on Bethel School District voters, and for good reason. Time and time again, residents in this increasingly populated and historically tax-averse area — where enrollment is expected to grow by 3,000 over the next decade — have failed her and her classmates.

At the same time, legislators also have failed to act, which might be worse. Lawmakers’ refusal to address the supermajority problem impacts students across the state.

On the other side of the Narrows, the Peninsula School District has suffered similar heartbreaking school bond defeats, and it’s not alone.

According to Seigel, a superintendent who has taken it upon himself to beat the drum for changing the state’s supermajority requirement, 35 of the state’s 294 districts — from Port Angeles to Omak, Republic to Clarkston — are similarly impacted.

State Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, is chair of the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee. In an interview with The News Tribune, she pledged to use her position to help get a conversation onto the Senate floor this year about putting the state’s school bond supermajority rule to voters.

While Wellman has sponsored a bill that would do just that, giving voters a chance to adopt a simple majority requirement for school bonds, ultimately she believes an effort to reduce the threshold to 55-percent might be more likely — and carry with it bipartisan support.

Either way, Wellman said she believes the time has come. Doing so will require amending the state constitution, meaning both the state Senate and the House of Representatives will need to approve such a proposal by a two-thirds vote.

Then — ironically — a simple majority (50 percent) of voters in a general election would need to sign off.

“There are districts that haven’t been able to get bonds passed to do anything for years. It’s heartbreaking at times,” Wellman acknowledged.

Try, try again

Come February, both Bethel and Peninsula will give it another go — floating new bond measures and eying new schools and needed renovations if they pass. If history has taught us anything, it’s that victory won’t come easy.

In Bethel, if the latest bond isn’t approved, a task force is currently looking at other options for the 2020-2021 academic year. The options include year-round schooling or double shifting, which could mean splitting the day in two or an alternating schedule, with students attending every-other-day, Monday through Saturday.

“I don’t think we can really depend on it,” said Logan Rosell, a 17-year-old Bethel High School senior, of Bethel’s latest bond attempt.

Rosell said access to his teachers is probably his biggest concern, since a lack of available classrooms at Bethel High School means teachers are moving from location to location throughout the day. Meanwhile, for English, math, science, social studies and language classes, the average class size at Bethel High School is 30-33 students.

Currently, the high school has 17 portables, though only 14 are used as classrooms — because three have been condemned.

“When I’m trying to plan classrooms for our teachers, I’m running out of places to put them,” said Bethel High School Principal Christy Rodriguez. “For instance, we only have so many science classrooms. It’s like musical chairs.”

Down the block from Bethel High School, Shining Mountain Elementary also has a lot on the line. Earlier this week, enrollment topped 800 at a school built for 500.

For Principal Paul Marquardt, the situation has reached a breaking point and forced plenty of tough decisions.

Though Shining Mountain was modernized with money from the last bond voters approved, back in 2006, this year the overcrowded elementary school was forced to use 14 portables — including four on the campus of Bethel Middle School next door.

That means three fourth-grade classes have to walk a quarter mile every time they come and go from class.

“They lose 15 minutes of instruction every time,” Marquardt said. “The loss of instructional time is the most frustrating to me as the principal. They get less instructional time than their peers.”

There are more practical concerns. Since it doesn’t have a lunchroom capable of handling multiple grades at a time, this year lunches are served continuously between 11 a.m. and 2:15 p.m., with students eating in their classrooms.

Shining Mountain is also equipped with just two main bathrooms.

“The infrastructure just can’t handle that many kids,” Marquardt said.

Back inside The Bunker at Bethel High School, it’s a similar scene. Teacher Whitney Hubeek is trying to oversee her medical career class while nearly 30 kids fight for seats and limited desk space.

Earlier this week, Hubeek says a crow found its way through a hole in the roof and pecked through the makeshift classroom’s popcorn ceiling.

As has become common at Bethel, the teacher was forced to improvise.

“Class was only delayed in the sense that I had to move all my students over to one side because we had to wipe down all the desks. He pooped everywhere,” Hubeek said of the unexpected visitor.

“It’s super challenging. The kids for sure have a negative impact,” she adds of the classroom environment she’s forced to teach in.

What goes unspoken — but shouldn’t be ignored — is the neglect, lack of investment and legislative inaction that allowed it to happen.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.