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Washington schools still falling apart in wake of McCleary solution

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Now that Washington state is fully funding its K-12 education, schools should have all they need, right? Not even close, especially when it comes to new classrooms and schools.

The problem: The McCleary funding solution that passed the Legislature last year covers the operational costs of basic education. It doesn’t cover capital or construction costs, which includes paying for new schools, repairs, and upgrades.

For those costs, most districts have to pass school construction bonds. And voters in many districts have not been willing to approve them.

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Bethel School District Superintendent Tom Seigel says that’s been a problem. The district has attempted to get a $443 million school construction bond four times in a row. And it has failed to get voter approval all four times, mostly recently in November.

Another bond is slated for the February ballot. It needs the money to build new schools, pay for upgrades, and remodel others.

“Eventually, if we simply run out of the ability to stuff any more kids into the classrooms we currently have, and there is no bond, something is going to give,” Seigel said. “And the board of directors will have to make a decision based on input they’re getting from these citizen groups … you either have those sort of crazy solutions, or you finally pass a bond and build the buildings and three years later you have the new building online. It takes three years to build a building.”

Those crazy solutions he’s talking about are proposals a pair of task force groups are currently considering in the district. They aim to solve the massive overcrowding by scattering school start times and splitting days so kids would go to school anywhere from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is also a year round option.

“The easiest, simplest thing is to do is build new buildings, but the local voters aren’t willing to do that,” Seigel said.

Building an education

That’s left schools in his district, and many others in the state, struggling to come up with money for new schools. It’s created a situation with hundreds of portables, massive overcrowding, and rickety buildings.

“You can go to Bethel High School and watch the water leak into the office, and you can watch the water cascading down into a trash can,” Seigel said. “Bethel High School really needs major work. It needs to be replaced. And other buildings are just wearing out. We have portables that are in really bad shape.”

Democratic State Senator Lisa Wellman, who heads the Senate education committee, says many other schools across the state are dealing with similar unsafe conditions.

“We’ve got asbestos, we’ve got collapsed ceilings, we got lead in the water because we’ve got old pipes that we need to re-engineer,” Wellman said. “We need a new building. Having a collapsing ceiling is not good as far as kids are concerned.”

Super majority

Many of these districts across Washington have the same problem as the Bethel School District — they can’t get those bonds passed. In fact, 13 districts ran bonds on last November’s ballot and only four passed. Another five would have passed if not for one thing — the super-majority of 60 percent needed to pass bonds. The requirement has been on the books since 1944.

That super-majority requirement was started in an effort to provide tax relief during war time. Many say it is way past outdated and needs to change, especially with so many bonds failing by just one or two percentage points.

“This law is a major impediment to being able to provide a fair environment for kids,” Seigel said. “It’s part of, in my opinion, the state’s obligation to provide a decent education to all kids. You got to have a place for kids to be. This 60 percent super majority requirement prevents that from happening.”

A solution

The only way to change the need for that 60 percent approval is an amendment to the state constitution. Senator Wellman has already pre-filed one proposal that would drop it to a simple majority of 51 percent.

“This is something that I am certainly championing going forward this session,” Wellman said. “I don’t necessarily think we are going to make it through on a simple majority, and I expect that there will be another bill or two coming in at a different number, but something that still moves in the right direction.”

She believes it is more likely to pass with a 55 percent voter approval needed to pass a bond. She started low to negotiate. Several other lawmakers have said they’ll support ditching the super majority requirement, and the State Schools Chief has asked for it.

In the end, it will be up to voters. First, two-thirds of the state Legislature is needed to approve a change to the state constitution. Then the issue would go to voters.

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