Wednesday, January 16, 2019

More thoughts on School Bonds...

Ruminations on voting or not voting for school bonds are below. It is a big, neglected topic. I am just scratching the surface. - RMF

The activists that have been trying (dutifully) to pass a bond for the Ferndale School District are holding public meetings this month around Ferndale:
The problems Ferndale activists are having passing their school bond are now endemic to small cities and county areas in WA.  To see this, type "Bonds WA failing" into the Google search bar. Ferndale has failed to pass this bond (primarily designed to rebuild the High School) in 2014 and GE 2018.  They are trying again this month.   Reading through the committee documents the local activists, parents, advocates have produced is more than anguishing. Type "ferndale school district bond" into google or just read through this document here.  I spent the week looking at some of these problems . I think the problem set for these WA communities trying to pass school bonds in rural and small city areas has common components:

(1) Many times the  60% 'supermajority' provides an insurmountable obstacle to the passage of school bonds (not school levys) in WA State.Type "Bond WA 60% supermajority" into the Google search bar to see more on this.

(2) Anti-tax advocates have been dealt greater ammunition with (recent) accelerating property appraisals. This clearly leverages the anti-tax fears of older, retired populations, especially those on fixed incomes.

(3) There is clearly an urban Democrat vs. rural Republican split on this. The local Republican party almost never explicitly takes an anti school bond position. But many conservative and many older voters adopt anti-tax positions anyway.

(4) The supermajority bond approval rules mean that without some Republican support, school bonds will not pass in may rural school districts.

(5) For any community, the a school bond issue should be an easy pass, but school infrastructure and bond interest costs are so expensive that the residents of many smaller school districts are right to be wary of increases in property taxes.

More information, tables, charts and analysis below the break.

School Bonds

Bonding is a staple of municipal and school financing and growth. The "Great Recession" was responsible for turmoil and confusion in the municipal bond markets and legislation was passed to help local communities recover and build again.  Still, states like California needed to pass statewide bonds and legislation to help their K-12 schools build again. But apparently, the state of California has been slow to distribute the bond money that it's voter's passed (1,2)  Even today, it is unclear whether bond markets are truly stable, risk averse instruments. Bonds are multivariate financial instruments. Municipal and School Bonds have historically been considered safe and important financial instruments. But municipal bonds can and do suffer from defaults, like any other form of financing. For more information on school and municipal bonds, see the links far below.

Whatcom County School District Recent Elections

I have done some analysis of the Ferndale SD GE2018 bond vote electoral dyanamics here.  The Blaine technology levy only needed a simple majority and so just squeaked by in April.  By comparison, Bellingham passed it's school bond by 70% this last February.  It should be pointed out that Bellingham most probably has many more tax payers than the Ferndale school district. The Census SAIPE estimates for November 2018 gives us:

Name POP School   Poverty
Bellingham School District    112410    12626     1329 
Ferndale School District       33453     6020      668 

School Children/ Population
[1] 0.18
[1] 0.11

School Children in Poverty / School Children
[1] 0.11
[1] 0.11

Name=District Name
POP = Total Population 
School = Population of Relevant Children 5 to 17 years of Age
Poverty =Estimated Number of Relevant Children 5 to 17 years old in Poverty Related to the Householder.

However ACS data gives me different number than SAIPE:

Getting data from the 2013-2017 5-year ACS
Using FIPS code '53' for state 'WA'
     GEOID                                   NAME variable estimate  moe
1: 5300420 Bellingham School District, Washington populati   104725 1502
2: 5302850   Ferndale School District, Washington populati    30594 1201

Getting data from the 2013-2017 5-year ACS
Using FIPS code '53' for state 'WA'
     GEOID                                   NAME variable estimate  moe
1: 5300420 Bellingham School District, Washington enrolled    33366 1173
2: 5302850   Ferndale School District, Washington enrolled     8108  681

As of 01/15/2019, Ferndale School District voting population looks like this:
CountActive   21959
Male          10557
Female        11402
meanAge          51
stdevAge         18
LTEAge50      10753
GTRAge50      11206
probRenter     2038
probHomeResi  19921

Min.      18
1st Qu.   35
Median    51
Mean      51
3rd Qu.   65
Max.     105

This is one simulation of what the bond proponents would need to win this election in Ferndale:

#Registered active  who voted in GE2018:
Voted by Mail Ballot 16,149
# 60% of those who voted in GE2018
16149 * .6 
# Number of votes needed to pass the school bond:
[1] 9,689
#Number of votes needed to stop the bond at 59.99% approval of all those who voted in GE2018:
(16149 *.4) + 1
[1] 6,461

The voter history of the last five major elections (GE 2018,2017, 2016 and PRI 2018, 2017) produce a table of these counts:
   BCsum    N
1:     4 6293 # Voted in 4 out of 5
2:     3 3939 # Voted in 3 out of 5
3:     2 4475 # Voted in 2 out of 5
4:     1 3549 # Voted in 1 out of 5
5:     0 3605 # No voting history
6:     5   98 # Voted in in 5 out of 5

This means there are still a number of Registered active voters (5,810) who have did not vote in GE 2018. Still with two losses under their belts, the probability is high this bond will lose again.


School infrastructure bonds are important issues. Their lack of passage will fundamentally define growth and electoral patterns in the LD 42nd and other WA legislative districts. I found it informative to read through the Ferndale community comments in this document here to understand the effort the Ferndale SD activists have gone through to pass this bond and the input they receive from their school district members.

Financing school infrastructure in WA is now a politically divisive issue that splits populations along age, urban/rural,renters/owners, family/not family demographics. More liberal populations (like Bellingham) are financing better and better school districts. Incoming parents will consider school systems as they move to the Pacific Northwest from outside of Whatcom County.  The net effect of having crumbling schools in rural areas could decrease the quality of education for working families in rural areas in WA and increase aging and conservative populations in those same areas. 

Some Links 


Charts of Census (2017 ACS) data on median household income and enrolled students. Students in poverty to follow soon. Click to enlarge charts:

Median Household Income by Block Group (ACS 2017). School Districts in Blue.
B19013_001E Estimate!!Median household income in the past 12 months (in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars)

School Enrollment by Block Group (ACS 2017). School Districts in Blue.
B14007_002E Estimate!!Total!!Enrolled in school
Children in Poverty Enrolled in School by Tract (ACS 2017). Block and Block Group not available for ACS 2017
B14006_003E Estimate!!Total!!Income in the past 12 months below the poverty level!! Enrolled in school

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