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Is it too hard to fund new school construction?

A mess of cables runs in front of a worn out blackboard in one of the classrooms at Arbor Heights Elementary School. Seattle School District is using voter-approved financing in the school's reconstruction, scheduled to start this year. Credit: Photo: Elliot Suhr (Originally published in 2013)

Bond measures for school buildings might become easier to pass under a proposal to hold a constitutional referendum on the matter.

Rep. Kathy Haigh, D- Shelton, has introduced a bill to reduce the constitutional requirement that 60 percent of the voters must approve a bond in school district elections. She wants to shrink that to a simple majority. Her bill would also have the public vote on whether to remove a requirement that the turnout in a school bond election be at least 40 percent of the number of people who voted in the previous general election.

Haigh's bill would need two-thirds approval in both the Senate and House to be put on a November ballot. Then, a simple majority of the public would be required to pass it as a constitutional amendment.

In a hearing before the House Education Committee Thursday, Haigh called the Legislature's two-thirds requirement "a pretty high mark." 

"I'm sure it'll take years to get there," she said.

Haigh noted that a bond can have thousands more voters than required for a simple majority but still come up short of 60 percent, a situation she called "pretty frustrating." 

"I do believe 50 percent plus one is democracy," she said.

Marie Sullivan, lobbyist for the Washington State School Directors Association, said 24 school bond votes were held across Washington on Tuesday. Eleven appear to have pass with votes greater than the 60 percent mark. Fourteen appear to have failed, but 11 of those tallied more than 50 percent of the votes, she said.

Some people speaking at the hearing pointed to the Washington Supreme Court's McCleary ruling, which requires improvements in student-teacher ratios in grades K-3. That translates into hiring more teachers and using more classrooms. The ruling will soon lead to bond measures to build the extra classrooms, they said.

Committee member Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R- Enumclaw, voiced skepticism over reducing the 60 percent requirement. She said her constituents have expressed concern about expensive new school buildings, saying they had done well in buildings more than 50 years old. And she pointed to the multiple times voters have backed initiatives to require two-thirds votes of the House and the Senate to pass any new taxes — a requirement that the Supreme Court  found unconstitutional last year.

Haigh said: "I think our kids should be in as nice a building as we are sitting in right here (in the House's office and hearing rooms building in Olympia). A lot of schools have flat roofs. Flat roofs in Washington don't work very well. They leak … If I send my kids (to a school building) every day, I want it to be a nice place to learn." 

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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