Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Supreme Court keeps school construction decisions in the hands of local voters

State’s high court strikes down key lawsuit regarding funding school buildings

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Education is Washington’s paramount duty, according to our State Constitution. Providing adequate funding of education has long been debated in our state and eventually resulted in a landmark court ruling in 2012, known as the McCleary decision. The Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling in that case brought significant changes to school funding. The State Supreme Court recently issued a ruling on a case some legal observers referred to as “McCleary II” brought by Wahkiakum School District in southwest Washington. Many legal observers believed this case could have required the state to fully fund school building improvements. Based on the court’s decision, however, school buildings will continue to be a shared cost between Washington state and local communities.

Supreme Court decision on school facilities

The Wahkiakum School District lawsuit argued that school districts with lower property values are at a disadvantage in gaining community support for the passage of school construction bonds and that the state is constitutionally obligated to more fairly fund school facilities. In its opinion issued on September 7th, the Washington State Supreme Court clarified that the state’s obligation to funding education does not entirely extend to funding school facilities, stating that Article IX, Section 1 of the State Constitution “treats school capital construction costs differently than it treats other education costs” and requires the state and local school districts to share the responsibility for school facilities.

How are school facilities funded?

For new school facilities or major renovations, school districts seek voter approval for issuing bonds. School “bond” proposals are longer-term property taxes because they are paid back to investors over time with interest and often include a long-term payback schedule. As such, there is a higher threshold of 60 percent required for school bond approval. For school districts whose communities support the requested school construction bonds, the state provides matching revenues through its School Construction and Assistance Program.

The difference between school “levies” and “bonds”

School “levies” should not be confused with school “bonds,” although both involve local schools, property taxes, and a community vote. School districts seek levies to supplement their operating costs and request bonds to build and renovate facilities. Levies are short-term taxes lasting up to four years and require a 50 percent approval. Bonds are longer-term taxes, lasting up to 25 years, and require a 60 percent approval. An easy way to remember the difference between the two tax proposals is levies are for learning and bonds are for buildings. School districts that gain a community’s 60 percent approval for their bonds are often eligible to receive state matching dollars at various levels for their new or renovated buildings.

Proposals to reduce 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 State Constitution, both the House and Senate would need to approve the legislation by a two-thirds vote and then the measure must receive statewide voter approval.

Past legislation has failed

A few years ago in the Senate, a proposal to reduce the threshold for school bond approval came to the Senate floor for consideration but failed to garner the votes required to pass. There were two bills in 2021 related to lowering the bond approval threshold. Senate Bill 5386 would have lowered the threshold for school bond votes from 60 percent to 55 percent. House Bill 1226 would lower the threshold from 60 percent to 50 percent. In 2019, Senate Joint Resolution 8201 was advanced to the Senate floor for a vote but failed with only 28 “yes” votes. This resolution – seeking to adjust the State Constitution related to school district indebtedness – was five votes short of the required 33 vote two-thirds approval.

Reasons “For” and “Against” lowering threshold

For: Supporters of the measures argue that a simple majority vote is sufficient to put elected officials in office for local, state, and federal positions as well as to establish laws by citizen initiatives. They say those same standards should apply to community votes on school constructions bonds. They do not want different standards for school district levies and bonds. They say school districts often gain a majority of voters in support of school construction proposals, but those votes fail because they did not achieve the 60 percent voter-approval threshold for bonds. Some school districts have proposed their school bonds to voters multiple times and are repeatedly unsuccessful. School advocates also argue that school buildings are key to any community and help provide students services critically important to their future. School advocates also add that almost all school district requests to voters are reasonable and school buildings across the state are in dire need of replacement or renovation.

Against: As your state senator, I support a simple majority threshold for school levy proposals, but I do not support a simple majority for school bond approvals. School levies have short-term tax impacts for communities and are subject to reauthorization whereas bonds have long-term tax impacts, upwards of 25 years. These votes can significantly alter the property taxes in a community for many years and, as such, warrant some sort of higher threshold. School bonds are difficult to pass at 60 percent, but it is achievable if the requests are reasonable and communications are good. During my school board service at Eastmont School District in 2010, we passed a bond to remodel Eastmont High School, Sterling Middle School, and Grant Elementary – along with other capital improvements – with 60 percent approval, on the first try, during a recession, and on a general election ballot. Yes, school facilities are very important, but property taxpayers deserve reasonable protections and realistic school district requests. While I am a supporter of schools, I am concerned about increased property tax pressures.

Other Programs: Rather than lowering the voting threshold to approve school bonds, the state could look to enhance funding to the existing School District Modernization Program. This would be a helpful way to facilitate building improvements to school districts without increasing homeowner property taxes. This program and other options will likely be considered during the 2024 session.

School boards oversee operations and facilities

Since so much focus is directed at the state meeting education funding needs, whether for school operations or facilies, the important role of school boards is often overshadowed, especially when it comes to tax votes. Washington state has 295 school districts. Those districts are local governments entities, not state agencies. They are governed by their own elected boards and administered by school superintendents. School districts collect revenues, develop local priorities, and administer their budgets. They should prudently invest taxpayer dollars (local, state, and federal) to implement programs, negotiate sustainable contracts with employees, manage operations, and maintain their buildings. School boards have significant authority within their districts and are the first to decide what property tax measures – both for school levies and school bonds – that voters are asked to consider.

School facilities will continue as a shared responsibility

As a former school board president, I greatly appreciate anyone who steps up to serve on their local school board. It is a difficult job with year-round responsibilities and public expectations. Maintaining adequate funding for their school facilities while keeping property tax burdens reasonable continues to be one of the many challenges for our schools. School funding, including financing options for improving school buildings, will continue to be discussed at the State Capitol. State grant programs may be expanded in the years ahead to help school districts better meet their school facility needs. However, based on the recent State Supreme Court decision, the financing of school facilities will continue to be a shared responsibility between the state and local communities, not entirely a responsibility of the state.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your state senator.

Brad Hawkins is the state senator for the 12th District. He serves as the Ranking Member on the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee. Prior to his election to the Legislature, he served as a board member for the North Central Educational Service District and the Eastmont School District.


 



 

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