State must end supremely bad supermajority for school bonds

Peninsula Schools bond short of needed 60 percent early results

Peninsula School District's $220 million improvement bond is just short of the 60 percent needed to approve the tax proposal.
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Peninsula School District's $220 million improvement bond is just short of the 60 percent needed to approve the tax proposal.

Last week’s defeat of a $220 million school bond dealt a demoralizing blow to families and educators in the Peninsula School District, trapping them in an uncertain future of overcrowded, potentially unsafe conditions.

It stands to reason that the loss also led to second-guessing among bond boosters. That’s only natural after they worked so hard to persuade voters west of the Narrows Bridge to approve a school construction funding package for the first time since 2003.

If only we’d made a stronger case. If only we’d put up more signs, handed out more fliers, knocked on more doors.

If only we’d waged a more effective fight against the underground opposition.

If only we’d turned out 650 more yes votes, or flipped 250 of those no voters into the yes column.

Playing the “if only” game could produce sleepless nights for Peninsula school advocates.

Rest easy, we say.

To win 59-percent support in the April 24 special election was no small feat, especially in a year when property tax sticker shock carried extra voltage.

Boosters did all they could do — all they should have to do — to secure approval for a school bond. They exceeded the simple majority requirement (50 percent plus one vote) that's sufficient to raise most taxes in Washington.

Nine percentage points above a simple majority should add up to a comfortable victory margin, at least under normal principles of democracy and fair play.

Unfortunately, democracy and fair play in Washington are usurped by a “supermajority” rule, which requires capital bonds to receive a 60-percent affirmative vote.

Basically, it gives outsized power to a minority of voters to thwart some tax increases.

Washington needs to bury this relic of the Great Depression once and for all. It won’t be fast and it won’t be easy because the only route is by constitutional amendment. But legislators should make it a priority heading into 2019.

Granted, life is often unfair, adversity always lurks around the corner and victory sometimes slips away when it seemed to be within one's grasp.

Remember Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson marching the team to the goal line at the end of Super Bowl 49, then throwing the fateful interception?

Ah, yes, but the Seahawks still would have won that game had they been nine points ahead.

Call it a stacked deck, loaded dice, the tyranny of the minority, or whatever cliche you prefer. On the Peninsula, what the supermajority rule means is that the votes of fewer than 9,400 people outweigh the votes of more than 13,400 people.

In a school district anchored by Pierce County’s most affluent city, it means that a desperately needed elementary school won’t be built in the Gig Harbor North area. Major projects at Peninsula High School, Key Peninsula Middle School and Artondale Elementary School will be deferred. And safety upgrades across the district are on hold.

The supermajority rule is an equal-opportunity barrier; it blocks lower-income districts from building modern school facilities as surely as it does districts with high property values. In February, Bethel School District continued its long streak of bond failures, despite winning a solid 54 percent of the vote on a $443 million proposal.

In Eastern Washington, at least 22 bond measures have received voter support of 55 percent or higher since 2011, but still went down to defeat.

The cost for districts to run bond elections two, three or more times can be devastating.

Meanwhile, a cynical message is sent to students who see democracy turned on its ear, year after year. Is it any wonder that so many young people don’t bother to vote?

The good news is that Washington voters loosened the supermajority’s grip on school funding once before, and they can do it again.

In 2007, the Legislature sent a constitutional amendment to the ballot to eliminate the supermajority for school levies and replace it with a simple majority. In November that year, voters approved the change, although the 60-percent threshold for bonds still stands.

But why keep a higher bar for bonds, which pay for school construction, than for levies, which pay for day-to-day school operations not funded by the state? Legislators have toyed with lowering the bond threshold, including a Senate proposal this year that would have dropped it to 55 percent.

Now is the time to get serious about it. Legislators should advance a constitutional amendment to tear down the rest of the supermajority wall.

Voters might ultimately say no; they upheld the rule a half dozen times after its inception in 1932 before narrowly approving the 2007 amendment. But they ought to be given a chance to remove the handcuffs from school districts and restore a core principle of democracy.

It will be a discredit to the Legislature if it doesn’t try to do the right thing for students. The continual decline and overcrowding of schools around Washington just might lead lawmakers to that familiar two-word expression of regret:

If only.