School bond vote requirements to remain the same after Senate vote fails

Floor debate showed a wide range of opinions from lawmakers

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — School district bonds will still need 60 percent of voters to approve them after a state Senate constitutional amendment failed to get the two-thirds vote required to pass.

The legislation ultimately would have placed an initiative to change the Constitution before state voters.

The amendment received 28 votes in favor and 21 in opposition. The only Democrat in opposition to Senate Joint Resolution 8201 was Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. 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 about reducing the voting percentage threshold, while others remained supportive.

Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, encouraged legislators 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,” Pedersen said.

South Kitsap School District also has a poor track record in persuading its voters to pass bond measures. Its most recent attempt in November fell well short of the 60-percent threshold.

Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, whose district represents the Bethel School District, said it has “made itself kind of a poster child of the problem with this voting percentage.”

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, a bond measure passed with 66.1-percent voter approval.

Conway encouraged support of the legislation, which he called an “opportunity to put schools at the forefront of our political agenda.” Sen. Short said the 60 percent of the vote has been a “needed balance mechanism” to ensure that the rights of all voters 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 a .03-percent margin.

The validity of the election was challenged in 2018, the election results were upheld and the Moses Lake School Board recommended two new elementary schools and a “mini high school be built. Sen. Warnick noted that her opinion of the issue has changed during 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,” Warnick said. “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 before the Early Learning & 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 of the importance of addressing school bonds on 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,” Wellman said.

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.