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Students urge lawmakers to lower the threshold for approval of school bond measures

Port Angeles School District
Some of the buildings on the Port Angeles High School campus are 65 years old. The district hasn't passed a bond measure since 2001.

Voters have until Tuesday, Feb. 12, to return their ballots in an election that's important to many Washington school districts. But some school districts are reckoning with the possibility of not winning enough voter approval for their bond measures, and they’ve turned to the state Legislature to try to lower the threshold required for passage.  

At a recent state Senate committee hearing, high school students told lawmakers that their school buildings are inadequate, crowded and, in some cases, falling apart.

“My first day of freshman year, I was walking down one of our main foot-trafficked hallways and I noticed garbage cans scattered everywhere because they were under parts of the roof that had been leaking,” said Hailey Robinson, a senior at Port Angeles High School.

Credit Patsene Dashiell / Port Angeles School District
Port Angeles School District
Hailey Robinson (center) is a senior at Port Angeles High School. She spoke at a state senate committee hearing in favor of lowering the threshold for school bond measures to pass.

Some of the buildings on the Port Angeles High School campus are 65 years old, and the last time the district passed a bond measure was in 2001.

Right now, school districts have to win approval from at least 60 percent of voters to pass a bond measure and the total number of voters has to be at least 40 percent of the total at the most recent general election. Districts from Bethel in Pierce County to Battle Ground in Clark County have repeatedly failed to clear that hurdle.

Levies, on the other hand, only require a simple majority to pass. That means districts in property-rich areas, such as Seattle, can raise enough through a tax levy to replace school buildings. A bond measure raises taxes for a longer period of time than a levy. Seattle has two levies on Tuesday’s ballot: an $815 million, three-year operations levy and a $1.4 billion, six-year capital levy.

One bill in the state Senate would lower the threshold for a bond measure to a simple majority and another would lower it to 55 percent of votes. But changing the threshold requires amending the constitution, and to do that, two-thirds of lawmakers in both houses would have to approve the bill and then it would go to the general election ballot.

Some state senators said they’re concerned that lowering the threshold would mean higher property tax bills. Sen. Brad Hawkins, a Republican who represents the 12th District that includes Wenatchee, said that’s something he hears often from people he represents, including just this week from one constituent.

“Their family has had a property for 70 years and they are considering having to move off of their family property because of the property taxes,” he said. “As pro-education as I am, I also am pro-property owner, so that’s the balance that I’m weighing.”

The Bethel School District is asking voters to approve a $443 million bond measure to build and renovate schools. A similar measure on the November ballot failed by 307 votes. It received 59.2 percent approval. That was the fourth failed bond measure since 2016.

The district said it has added more than 2,000 students in the past decade, and Paul Marquardt, principal of Shining Mountain Elementary School, said he can see that growth every day.  

“Shining Mountain is a school that was built for 550 kids,” he said. “This is my fifth year at the Mountain and last year, we saw our number blossom to over 800 students.”

Marquardt said the Bethel district is experiencing significant growth because families are moving to suburban Pierce County in search of cheaper housing.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.