Let’s begin by stating the painfully obvious: Three South Sound school districts shouldn’t be in the wearisome position of asking voters yet again for money to build and upgrade schools. Shame on legislators if they don’t finally step up this year and do their part to lower Washington’s school bond “supermajority” hurdle.
In the past year, Peninsula School District won 58.96 percent backing from voters for a construction package, Bethel 59.22 percent and Yelm 58.97 percent. Those would be runaway victories in any other election.
But different rules apply to school bond measures in Washington. A perverse, archaic 60-percent threshold has caused a disinvestment crisis on too many K-12 campuses.
We strongly urge Peninsula, Bethel and Yelm residents to support their schools on Feb. 12. But it’s inexcusable that the majority of voters in those communities must endure the futility of marking “yes” on their ballots over and over, like characters from the movie “Groundhog Day.” Even the most diligent citizens might eventually burn out.
Not this time, though; rather, we’re hoping for a surge of support — from people who’ve waffled in the past, cast ill-informed “no” votes or shirked their duty to participate in special elections. Some folks might’ve been daunted by a spike in property taxes in 2018, part of the Legislature’s plan to meet a school-funding court order. But that was an anomaly, and tax rates are headed down starting this year.
These are the voters who can deliver the few extra hundred “yeses” needed to get over the 60-percent hump.
In the Peninsula School District, voters should defy recent history by approving a bond for the first time since 2003. The $198.5 million plan would build two elementary schools and replace two others. The fact that 66 portables are now in use, and that one third of classrooms for the youngest kids lie outside the security of the main campus buildings, should embarrass a community as affluent as the Gig Harbor area.
Peninsula’s bond team was commendably responsive to last year’s defeat. Organizers dropped the price tag from $220 million, stripped out everything but elementary schools and didn’t repeat the error of holding an election in April, when tax notices are fresh.
Of the three districts, only Peninsula faces active opposition and a “no” statement in the voters pamphlet. Instead of a bond, opponents say they want short-term capital levy spending and improved facility maintenance. But that’s no panacea for the severe overcrowding that exists now, plus more population growth on the horizon.
Bethel School District is standing pat with a $443 million package similar to one that lost in February last year and again in November. It’s an ambitious plan to build or renovate several schools at all grade levels, from Spanaway to Graham.
If any district risks voter fatigue, it’s Bethel, which hasn’t passed a bond since 2006 and where four attempts have failed in the last three years alone. But what other choice do officials have when their suburban-rural student population has exploded by more than 2,000 over a decade — enough to fill four elementary schools? Double-shifting students or switching to a year-round schedule would be highly unpopular.
Immediately southwest of Bethel, families and educators in the territory straddling Pierce and Thurston counties are up against similar obstacles. Yelm School District seeks a $98.9 million bond to replace an overcrowded, dilapidated middle school and elementary school.
Getting rid of 30 unsecure portable classroom buildings up to 40 years old is a worthy goal. So is passing a bond for the first time since 2003, when Yelm had 1,500 fewer students.
The best possible valentine for local children would be the approval of Peninsula, Bethel and Yelm school bonds on Feb. 12.
Meantime, legislators need to muster the courage — and two-thirds support — to begin knocking down the repressive supermajority barrier. Washington voters should be allowed to act on a constitutional amendment this fall.