Voters ride to rescue of South Sound schools. Legislators must join the cavalry

Braving the post-snowstorm mess on Election Day, a Peninsula School District voter uses the ballot drop box on Point Fosdick Drive in Gig Harbor.
Braving the post-snowstorm mess on Election Day, a Peninsula School District voter uses the ballot drop box on Point Fosdick Drive in Gig Harbor. The News Tribune

United States lore is rich with stories of Cavalry troops riding to the rescue in the nick of time, rallying to the bugle call and overcoming obstacles en route to heroic acts.

Voters in three local school districts did their best Cavalry imitation last week by approving bonds to pay for much-needed school construction projects. For that, they deserve a salute.

The Bethel, Peninsula and Yelm communities answered the call with a resounding “yes.” And after multiple previous rejections — Peninsula and Yelm haven’t passed bonds since 2003, and Bethel’s tasted defeat four times in the last three years — there was no time to waste.

Voters weren’t thwarted by obstacles such as snowbound neighborhoods, slick roads or spotty mail service. And they finally leaped the biggest hurdle of all with room to spare.

They met and exceeded the state’s 60-percent “supermajority” requirement for school bond passage.

But make no mistake: The supermajority remains a superannuated and supremely bad policy. It has kept too many Washington school districts from addressing overcrowded and dilapidated facilities.

The Legislature must send a measure to the statewide ballot this fall that gives voters a chance to lower the crippling supermajority threshold.

Last year, 28 school bonds around the state failed, even though all but four had more than 50-percent support. In Tuesday’s election, school bonds in Clark, Snohomish and Skagit counties were falling short despite winning a majority.

Of all the arguments against the supermajority we’ve heard, none can top the Bethel students who testified before a legislative committee Thursday. The teens eloquently called for a return to a simple-majority rule for school bonds, which was part of Washington’s original Constitution ratified 130 years ago.

Allowing 41 percent of voters to stand in the way of safe, healthy and educationally competitive campuses is undemocratic, they said.

“In our government classes they teach us in high school, they call it the tyranny of the minority,” Sam Lafferty, a student at Graham-Kapowsin High School, told the House Education Committee.

We’re glad Sam and his peers in Bethel, Peninsula and Yelm finally received good news this week. But it doesn’t let Washington lawmakers off the hook.

True, the three local districts had no trouble reaching 60 percent this time. Bethel and Peninsula sat above 66 percent as of Friday’s ballot count; Yelm held steady above 64 percent (when Pierce and Thurston voters are combined). But that does nothing to alleviate the high cost in money, time and demoralized school communities that was spent getting to this point.

It doesn’t reverse the hundreds of thousands of dollars in combined election bills the districts racked up in recent years while edging closer to the supermajority line.

Nor does it ease the burden of extra building costs they didn’t have to incur; the Northwest’s hot construction market, soaring steel prices and Trump administration tariffs have resulted in school districts getting less bang for every bond buck.

It’s hard to pinpoint why the all three local proposals enjoyed such extraordinary spikes in support this time. (Each hovered around 59 percent last year.) Did boosters wage more vigorous campaigns? Did it help that there was nothing else on the ballot to distract voters? Perhaps.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the requests came at a time when taxpayers are getting relief.

Nearly every property owner in the region felt the sting of higher tax bills in 2018, thanks to a new statewide levy the Legislature adopted to meet a court order to fix inequitable K-12 funding. The tradeoff was a reduction in local school levies, and that goes into effect this year.

Peninsula’s bond team helped their cause by lopping $21.5 million from last year’s package and zeroing in on the greatest need: elementary schools.

Bethel stuck with largely the same request as last year, but found new ways to galvanize people — including through the voices of the students who testified in Olympia last week.

A year ago, we said: “Bethel must figure out how to cultivate greater community trust.” Mission accomplished.

Did the snowstorm impact election returns? Not according to Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson. Voter turnout was actually up compared to last winter’s bond elections in the same communities.

“Inclement weather didn’t have an effect on voting, although it was an interesting variable for our operations,” Anderson told us Thursday. “We did make a note to ourselves that we need to buy show shovels.”

Bravo for the hardy election center crews who got stuck in the snow (four times) emptying ballot drop boxes as far as the Key Peninsula. Kudos as well to the mail carriers who picked up postage-paid ballots in hard-to-reach areas.

Count them among the cavalry of heroes — voters, bond boosters, politically engaged students — who rallied to the cause of democracy so that the will of the majority would be honored.

Legislators, will you answer the call?