Should the election threshold change for passage of school bond tax votes?

The Washington State Constitution states that education is its paramount duty (Article IX, Sec 1). As a result, education policy and taxes have always been of significant importance in our state. You may remember that the Washington State Supreme Court issued its McCleary Decision on education funding in 2012.

This was a landmark case that required the state to significantly increase its funding for K-12 education. In response, over several budget cycles, the Legislature took steps to address this decision and the high court determined the funding had been achieved in 2018 and closed the case.

How are public schools funded and administered?

The Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on education funding has significantly influenced Washington state’s school funding, but the court’s decision has largely overshadowed the important role that school districts play in developing local priorities, approving annual budgets, and managing their operations. School districts are actually local governments, not state agencies.

They are governed by their own locally elected school boards, and their districts are administered by their own superintendents. Washington state has 295 school districts, each with unique needs and varied priorities. Districts receive the majority of their funds from state dollars on a per-student basis along with local and federal funds.

The 295 different school districts across the state collect revenues, develop local priorities, and administer their budgets. School districts should prudently invest their taxpayer dollars (local, state, and federal) to implement their programs, negotiate sustainable contracts with their employees, and manage their operations.

State funding to school districts is based on a “general apportionment” formula in accordance with an approved “prototypical” funding model.

The funding can vary slightly based on the characteristics of the district’s student population, but it is largely based on overall enrollment. Additionally, school districts have the option of seeking local tax authorization and tax increases to supplement their federal and state funding.

These funds are in the form of “local levy dollars” authorized by a community vote and paid out of your local property tax dollars. The amount of levy funds sought can vary greatly by school district, which also results in some variations of per-student funding levels, once all sources of funds (local, state, and federal) are combined by the districts.

Overall, the per-student funding in Washington state has significantly increased. After the state’s significantly increased funding for K-12 education was finalized, I voted to cap how much school districts could request in their local levies. Unfortunately, the cap that the Legislature put in place during the McCleary reforms was lifted just a couple years later, allowing school districts to seek even more local property tax increases.

However, despite school districts requesting more funding in their levies, most communities have consistently supported the tax increases with at least 50 percent voter approval.

How are school facilities funded?

School districts seek local levies to supplement their operating costs. These day-to-day costs of operating a school district include staffing, utilities, supplies, food services, and transportation fuel. Local levies are short-term taxes, lasting up to four years, and require 50 percent voter support for approval.

For building construction and major renovations, schools seek community voter approval for issuing bonds, which are long-term obligations. These proposals involve longer-term property tax impacts because bonds are paid back to investors over time (with interest) and could include a 25-year payback schedule.

As such, there is a higher threshold of 60 percent voter support required for approval. For the school districts that receive community support for school construction, the state provides additional support to match a portion or all of those funds through the state capital budget’s School Construction and Assistance Program.

While both school levies (for learning) and school bonds (for buildings) include a community vote and a property tax impact for the approving communities, the thresholds for approval are different as school levy proposals require 50% voter approval and school bond proposals require 60 percent voter approval.

Legislature considers reducing voter approval for bonds

In recent years, some school advocates have sought to reduce the existing 60 percent approval threshold for school construction bonds to a 50 percent simple majority. In 2007, before my service began in the Legislature, the state reduced school levy approval from 60 percent to 50 percent where it still stands today.

The effort to do the same for school construction bonds has been active for at least the past few years. In order to make this change, since it would involve altering a provision in the Washington Constitution, both the House and Senate would need to approve the legislation by a two-thirds vote and then the measure must receive a statewide voter approval of at least 50 percent.

During my service in the Senate a few years ago, the simple majority school bond measure came to the Senate floor but failed to garner the two-thirds approval needed to pass the Senate and move to the House of Representatives. There are two bills this year related to this issue. Senate Bill 5386 would lower the threshold for school bond votes from 60 percent to 55 percent, and House Bill 1226 would lower the threshold from 60 percent to 50 percent. If not approved this year, both bills will be eligible next session.

Sen. Brad Hawkins serves the 12th District, which covers much of North Central Washington.


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