Politics & Government

Proposal would lower bar for school-district bond measures

Less than a week after several school-district bond measures failed at the polls, state lawmakers will consider making it easier for school districts to raise property taxes to construct or upgrade buildings.

A proposed constitutional amendment would allow school construction bonds to be approved by a simple majority of voters, rather than the 60 percent needed under current law.

In a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, the lower approval-threshold would apply only to school bonds that appear on the general election ballot in November and not to special elections run in winter and spring, popular times for school elections.

The bill might help many school districts whose bond measures have failed due to the 60-percent requirement, even though they won the majority of voters’ support.

Last week, a $53.9 million bond measure for Yelm Community Schools failed despite winning about 50 percent of the vote, while bond measures elsewhere in the Puget Sound region failed although more than 50 percent of voters approved them.

Rep. Mia Gregerson, a SeaTac Democrat who is the prime sponsor of House Joint Resolution 4210, said she is tired of seeing bond measures in her local Highline School District lose despite winning majority approval. A $376-million bond measure to rebuild a high school and build three new schools in the Highline School District failed Tuesday, though the latest returns showed nearly 55 percent of voters approved it.

“All the people who are making laws and legislating were elected with a simple majority,” Gregerson said. “Why do we change the criteria for our children? These are our children, and these are unsafe buildings.”

Officials in the Puyallup School District, the second-largest school district in Pierce County, are dealing with similar issues. Voters in the Puyallup School District last approved a bond measure in 2004, with the district’s most recent attempt to pass a school construction bond in 2013 failing despite the support of more than 55 percent of voters.

The district is using more than 230 portable classrooms to house its growing population of students. District leaders are considering floating another construction bond measure later this year to add classroom space, said district spokesman Brian Fox.

Fox said Puyallup officials would be thrilled if the Legislature would make it easier for them to get construction bonds approved.

“We believe that we already have a majority of voters who would support a bond, because that’s been evident in our most recent bond election,” he said.

Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom and a co-sponsor of the bill, said allowing simple-majority approval of school bond measures only at November elections is a compromise that should help win the approval of tax-averse Republicans. He said that means there will still be a limit on how often school districts can attempt to raise property taxes with fewer votes.

High voter turnout at November elections also means that getting more than 50 percent approval for a bond won’t be guaranteed, he said.

“We will still have a high bar,” Muri said.

The proposal to approve school construction bond measures with a simple majority will be heard before the House Education Committee Monday.

For the constitutional amendment to take effect, it would need to win the approval of two-thirds of members of the Legislature, and then also be approved by a majority of voters in the November election.