Legislators in Olympia scramble to fund school construction
Last updated 4/4/2019 at Noon
The state Senate failed to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would have lowered the percentage of votes needed to approve bond issues that could have been used to add new classrooms and build new schools.
The vote has a direct impact on overcrowded schools like Jackson High in Mill Creek where 30 portables were installed this year to cope with increased enrollment, according to Superintendent Gary Cohn.
Republicans in the upper chamber in Olympia convinced enough Democrats to join them to defeat a Joint Resolution to reject an amendment by a vote of 28-21. The measure would have lowered the requirement that requires bond issues to be approved by a supermajority of voters.
New residential developments in Mill Creek and other parts of south Snohomish County are expected to increase the number of students at both Jackson High and Heatherwood Middle School until at least 2023, based on projections from officials with Everett Public Schools.
“I’m disappointed in the legislators,” EPS Board President Carol Andrews told The Beacon. “It seems outdated to leave in place an outdated provision that allows a ‘no vote’ to carry more weight than a ‘yes vote’.”
The extra dollars, Andrews said, could have paid for a new high school and additional classrooms to ensure the district complies with state rules for smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.
“The state gives us mandates, but not the tools to carry them out, which is frustrating,” said Andrews.
A majority of voters in the vast Everett district cast ballots in favor of the $330 million Capital Improvement and Construction Bond in a special election last February. The bond measure was earmarked to fund a fourth high school and additional classrooms at Jackson.
However, the total was 6 percent short of the supermajority (60 percent) required by current state law. The district will have to wait until at least 2020 voters have another chance to approve additional funds for construction.
Andrews said the Everett district said a new high school and “very soon an additional elementary school or two” to serve the growing Mill Creek community.
“The district is trying to decide when to ask our voters for support again.”
Local state representatives in Olympia have been shutdown in their attempt to help the situation
“The number is just too high,” said state Rep. Lovick (D-Mill Creek). He called for the requirement to be changed to something “more reasonable, like 50 or even 55 percent.”
Rep. Jared Mead (D-Mill Creek) agreed with his colleague, adding that the state should change the percentage as well as the method the state uses to calculate matching funds from public sources for schools.
“There are 30 portable classrooms at Jackson this year as a direct result of the state’s inability to match the investment in schools made by our community,” Mead told The Beacon. “These funds are needed to maintain the quality of education people have come to expect from our local schools.”
Mead is a graduate of Jackson High and Heatherwood Middle School.
The pair of lawmakers who represent the 44th Legislative District had pledged to make the reduction of the percentage of votes needed for approval of a bond measure a top priority before the start of the current session in Olympia.
Officials with the Everett district are not alone in their battle to amend the state constitution.
“We have schools that are so overcrowded I wonder how the fire marshal allows these schools to open their doors,” said Rep. Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island), the prime sponsor of the amendment.
In Arlington, voters turned down a bond in February that would have provided funds for new schools for the third time in the past 18 months. The latest vote was approved more than 52 percent of the voters in the district.
The previous votes in February and November of 2018 received 55 and 52 percent approval, but fell short of the supermajority needed to fund public bonds.
Opposition to the proposal to lower the required percentage was lead by Republicans in the Senate who claim voters could be forced to pay for the immediate needs of schools for as long as 30 years.
Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) said lowering the current voting percentages needed for public bonds could result in “huge tax increases in some districts, with zero protection against costs.”
He emphasized that reforms are needed before asking voters for more money.
Republicans did propose modified changes to the minimum percentage to 55 percent for school bond and an exemption from prevailing wage requirement to offset the increased cost of projects. That changed was blocked by a ruling that it was outside the scope of the original proposal.
All 28 votes to approve the measure came from Democrats in the senate, while the no votes came from Republican members and Sen. Tim Sheldon from Shelton, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans.