OLYMPIA — School district bonds will still need 60 percent of the vote after a Senate constitutional amendment failed to get the two-thirds vote required to pass.
The amendment received 28 votes from Democrats in favor and 21 in opposition. Those in opposition to Senate Joint Resolution 8201 included Senators Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, Shelly Short, R-Addy and Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.
A school district bond is voted on by the public, usually to finance a building project. During the Senate floor debate, many senators voiced their concerns with regard to reducing the voting percentage threshold, while others remained supportive.
Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, encouraged the legislature to “tread with caution” when making changes to the constitution. Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, supported the legislation and the choice it gives voters.
“To those who are concerned about the effect on taxpayers, I guess I would say wow, all we are doing is empowering the taxpayers in school districts to decide through the democratic process whether they want to pay those taxes,” said Pedersen.
Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, represents the Bethel School District which has “made itself, kind of, a poster child of the problem with this voting percentage.”
The Bethel School District has been working to pass a bond since 2006, once failing by three-tenths of a percent, and has continued to fall short until February 2019, when in a special election the bond passed with 66.1 percent approval. Conway encouraged support of the legislation, which he called an “opportunity to put schools at the forefront of our political agenda.”
Short said the 60 percent of the vote has been a “needed balance mechanism” to ensure that the rights of everyone involved are protected.
In February 2017, the Moses Lake School District passed a $135 million construction bond with 60.03 percent of the vote. Under the proposed constitutional change, the bond in Moses Lake would have passed with a large margin, however, under the current law it passed by just 0.03 percent.
Sen. Warnick noted that her opinion of this issue has changed over the course of her time in the legislature and she currently cannot support amending the state’s constitution.
“We passed in Moses Lake a school bond by 3 votes and that was a 60 percent majority,” said Warnick. “The pathway, I think, for these schools to pass their bonds must be convincing the voters that this is what we need. Sell it, get out there and work.”
In public testimony at the Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee school district representatives spoke on the difficulties they face to pass bonds, which frequently fail to pass by close margins.
Chair of the committee, Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, spoke to the importance of addressing school bonds, what she believes to be a school safety issue.
“We have many school bonds that have not passed year, after year, after year and these schools are really in trouble and these kids are really hurting,” said Wellman.
The amendment was requested by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. A similar version of this legislation has not made it out of committee in the House.