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AGO 1988 No. 13 - June 15, 1988
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Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

SCHOOL DISTRICTS ‑- BOND ISSUES ‑- TAX LEVIES ‑- EQUIPMENT PURCHASES

1.         A school district may not impose a bond levy and issue negotiable bonds solely for the purpose of acquiring computers, other equipment, or furniture.

 2.         A school district may not impose a six-year levy of taxes under article 7, section 2, of the state constitution, solely for the purpose of acquiring computers, other equipment, or furniture. 

3.         A school district which undertakes a modernization project involving major structural changes may use six-year levy proceeds for the project and the project may include the acquisition and installation of new and replacement equipment and furniture.

                                                              - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                   June 15, 1988 

Honorable Daniel K. Grimm
State Representative
25th District
P.O. Box 1046
Puyallup, WA 98371

Cite as:  AGO 1988 No. 13                                                                                                                

 Dear Representative Grimm:

             By letter previously acknowledged, you have requested the opinion of this office on the following questions:1/

             (1) May a school district impose a bond levy and issue negotiable bonds solely for the purpose of acquiring computers, other equipment, or furniture?

             (2) May a school district impose a six-year levy, without issuing bonds, if such levy is used solely for the purpose of acquiring computers, other equipment, or furniture?

              [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

             (3) May a school district use levy proceeds from a six-year levy for acquisition and installation of equipment to be used as part of a renovation and modernization project?

             We answer the first two questions in the negative for the reasons set forth in our analysis.  The third question is answered in the affirmative as qualified in our analysis.

                                                                      ANALYSIS

 Question 1

             May a school district impose a bond levy and issue negotiable bonds solely for the purpose of acquiring computers, other equipment, or furniture?

             Your first question inquires about a school district's issuance of general obligation bonds, to be used solely for the purchase of computers, other equipment, or furniture.  Initially we note that school districts are creatures of legislative enactment.  They exist solely for public purposes and may exercise only those powers expressly granted by the Legislature, those necessarily implied or incident to the powers granted, and those essential to the Legislature's declared purpose.  Moses Lake Sch. Dist. 161 v. Big Bend Comm'ty College, 81 Wn.2d 551, 556, 503 P.2d 86 (1972);Juntila v. Everett Sch. Dist. 24, 178 Wash. 637, 35 P.2d 78 (1934);Seattle High Sch. Chapter 200 v. Sharples, 159 Wash. 424, 293 P. 994, 72 A.L.R. 1215 (1930).

             Article 7, section 2 of the Washington State Constitution authorizes the issuance of general obligation bonds.  It provides in part:

                         Except as hereinafter provided and notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, the aggregate of all tax levies upon real and personal property by the state and all taxing districts now existing or hereafter created, shall not in any year exceed on per centum of the true and fair value of such property in money:  Provided, however, That nothing herein shall prevent levies at the rates now provided by law by or for any port or public utility district.  The term "taxing district" for the purposes of this section shall mean any political subdivisions, municipal corporation, district, or other governmental agency authorized by law to levy, or have levied for it, ad valorem taxes on property, other than a port or public utility district.  Such aggregate limitation or any specific limitation imposed by law in conformity therewith may be exceeded only

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

                        ...

                         (b) By any taxing district otherwise authorized by law to issue general obligation bonds for capital purposes, for the sole purpose of making the required payments of principal and interest on general obligation bonds issuedsolely for capital purposes, other than the replacement of equipment, when authorized so to do by majority of at least three‑fifths of the electors thereof voting on the proposition to issue such bonds and to pay the principal and interest thereon by an annual tax levy in excess of the limitation herein provided during the term of such bonds, submitted not oftener than twice in any calendar year, at an election held in the manner provided by law for bond elections in such taxing district, at which election the total number of persons voting on the proposition shall constitute not less than forty per centum of the total number of votes cast in such taxing district at the last preceding general election:  Provided, That any such taxing district shall have the right by vote of its governing body to refund any general obligation bonds of said district issued for capital purposes only, and to provide for the interest thereon and amortization thereof by annual levies in excess of the tax limitation provided for herein,And provided further, That the provisions of this section shall also be subject to the limitations contained in Article VIII, Section 6, of this Constitution;

                        ...

 (Emphasis added.)

             Additionally, the Legislature has enacted statutes dealing with school districts' authority to issue bonds.  RCW 28A.51.010 states:

                         The board of directors of any school district may borrow money and issue negotiable bonds therefor for the purpose of:

                         (1) Funding outstanding indebtedness or bonds theretofore issued; or

                         (2) For the purchase of sites for all buildings, playgrounds, physical education and athletic facilities and structures authorized by law or necessary or proper to carry out the functions of a school district; or

              [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

                         (3) For erecting all buildings authorized by law, including but not limited to those mentioned in subparagraph (2) immediately above or necessary or proper to carry out the functions of a school district, and providing the necessaryfurniture, apparatus, or equipment therefor; or

                         (4) For improving the energy efficiency of school district buildings and/or installing systems and components to utilize renewable and/or inexhaustible energy resources; or

                         (5) For major and minor structural changes and structural additions to buildings, structures, facilities and sites necessary or proper to carrying out the functions of the school district; or

                         (6)For any or all of these and other capital purposes.

                         Neither the amount of money borrowed nor bonds issued therefor shall exceed the limitation of indebtedness prescribed by chapter 39.36 RCW, as now or hereafter amended.

                         Bonds may be issued only when authorized by the vote of the qualified electors of the district as provided by law.

                         The bonds shall be issued and sold in accordance with chapter 39.46 RCW.

 (Emphasis added.)

             Your question asks specifically about the purchase of furniture, computers, or other equipment.2/

              "Equipment" is defined as "the special things needed for some purpose; supplies, furnishings, apparatus."  Webster's New World Dictionary 473 (1976).  Without going into lengthy analysis, it is clear that computers are a type of equipment.

             We turn now to an analysis of RCW 28A.51.010 to determine whether the Legislature has authorized the use of bond issues for  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] the purchase of equipment unrelated to the erection of a building or other structure.  The fundamental object of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the Legislature.  Martin v. Aleinikoff, 63 Wn.2d 842, 389 P.2d 422 (1964).

             In our opinion, RCW 28A.51.010(3) authorizes the use of bond funds to purchase equipment only in connection with a construction project.  Under the statutory construction doctrine of noscitur a sociis, the words "furniture, apparatus, or equipment therefor" can most logically be read to relate to the phrase "erect all buildings."  SeeMercer Island v. Kaltenbach, 60 Wn.2d 105, 109, 371 P.2d 1009 (1962);Shurgard Mini-Storage v. Department of Rev., 40 Wn. App. 721, 727, 700 P.2d 1176 (1985); Kucher v. Pierce Cy., 24 Wn. App. 281, 286, 600 P.2d 683 (1979); 2A N. Singer,Statutory Construction § 47.16. (4th ed. 1984).

             In addition, the context under which the current language of RCW 28A.51.010(3) was last amended, together with the scant legislative history available, supports our interpretation.  The statute took its current form in 1969 with Laws of 1969, ch. 142, sec. 2.  That section amended both subsection (2) and subsection (3), and the amendments were clearly intended to harmonize.  The legislative history indicates that the general purpose of the 1969 legislation was to make it easier for school districts to finance construction projects through bonds.  See Senate Journal, 41st Legislature (1969) at 550-551.  There is no indication that the Legislature also intended to authorize bond issued purely for equipment purchases.

             We next turn to RCW 28A.51.010(6), which states:  "For any or all of these and other capital purposes."  Under the doctrine of ejusdem generis where specific words are followed by general words, the specific words govern the character or kind of the matter included in the general words.  Champion v. Shoreline Sch. Dist. 412, 81 Wn.2d 672,674, 504 P.2d 304 (1972).  Applying the doctrine of ejusdem generis to RCW 28A.51.010(6), we conclude that the term "other capital purposes" means those of the type enumerated in subsections (1) through (5); to wit:  purchase of building sites, erection of buildings, structural changes, and improving energy efficiency.

             We also note that the terms "furniture and equipment" are only mentioned in RCW 28A.51.010 in conjunction with building construction.  We believe that had the Legislature intended to allow the purchase of furniture and equipment through the issuance of bonds, it would have so stated.  Our interpretation is consistent with article 7, section 2(b), which prohibits the  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]  use of bond monies for the replacement of equipment.3/

              Thus, a school district may not use bond monies for the replacement of equipment nor for the general purchase of equipment unless done incidentally to building construction.  For the foregoing reasons, we answer you first question in the negative.

 Question 2

            May a school district impose a six-year levy, without issuing bonds, if such levy is used solely for the purpose of acquiring computers, other equipment, or furniture?

             Article 7, section 2 authorizes six-year levies.  It provides in part:

                         Such aggregate limitation or any specific limitation imposed by law in conformity therewith may be exceeded only

                         (a) By any taxing district when specifically authorized so to do by a majority of at least three‑fifths of the electors thereof voting on the proposition to levy such additional tax submitted not more than twelve months prior to the date on which the proposed levy is to be made and not oftener than twice in such twelve month period, either at a special election or at the regular election of such taxing district, at which election the number of persons voting "yes" on the proposition shall constitute three‑fifths of a number equal to forty per centum of the total votes cast in such taxing district at the last preceding general election when the number of electors voting on the proposition does not exceed forty per centum of the total votes cast in such taxing district in the last preceding general election; or by a majority of at least three‑fifths of the electors thereof voting on the proposition to levy when the number of electors voting on the proposition exceeds forty percentum of the total votes cast in such taxing district in the last preceding general election:Provided, That notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, any proposition pursuant to this subsection to levy additional tax for the support of  [[Orig. Op. Page 7]] the common schools may provide such support for a two year period and any proposition to levy an additional tax to support the construction, modernization, or remodelling of school facilities may provide such support for a period not exceeding six years;

                        ...

 (Emphasis added.)

             The language in the proviso beginning with "and any proposition" and ending with "six years" was added by Amendment 79, which was approved by the voters as House Joint Resolution 55 on November 4, 1986.

             RCW 84.52.053 provides statutory authority for six-year levies by school districts.  This statute authorizes levies for support of a school district:

             when authorized ... by the electors of such school district in the manner and for the purposes and number of years allowable under Article VII, section 2(a) of the Constitution of this state, as amended by Amendment 79 and as thereafter amended, ... in the case of a proposition ... authorizing two-year through six-year levies to support the construction, modernization, or remodeling of school facilities, ... at a special or general election to be held in the year in which the first annual levy is made ...

 (Emphasis added.)

             Inasmuch as House Joint Resolution 55 (Amendment 79) was subject to voter approval, we should consider how it was presented to the voting population.  Material in the official voters' pamphlet may be considered in determining the purpose and intent of an act.  Whitaker v. Spiegel, Inc., 95 Wn.2d 661, 673, 623 P.2d 1147, 637 P.2d 235 (1981); Hearst Corp. v. Hoppe, 90 Wn.2d 123, 128, 580 P.2d 246 (1978);Department of Rev. v. Hoppe, 82 Wn.2d 549, 512 P.2d 1094 (1973).

             The official voter's pamphlet stated:

             The effect of HJR 55, if approved into law:

                         The voters of a school district would be permitted to authorize the district to impose an excess tax levy for up to six years for the purpose of directly financing capital projects consisting of facility construction, modernization or remodeling.  The current provisions of law respecting the issuance of bonds for  [[Orig. Op. Page 8]] capital purposes and the levy of excess taxes to retire the bonds would not be changed.

 Opponents of House Joint Resolution 55 alleged that it was vague and dangerous:

                         The terms "modernization" and "school facilities" are not defined and could mean almost anything.  In fact, the language of the constitutional amendment is so vague, any sort of costly six-year levy, possibly even for non-capital purposes, could be submitted to the voters so long as the issue was loosely tied to the concept of "modernization".

 In the statement for passage, proponents urged that House Joint Resolution 55 was "a less expensive option for school construction."  Further, in their rebuttal of the statement against this proposed constitutional amendment, they stated:  "Don't be misled.  HJR 55 is for building purposes only.  These termsare defined in law."

             The rules of construction apply equally to direct legislation by the people as to legislative enactments.  Department of Rev. v. Hoppe, 82 Wn.2d at 552. Considering the quoted portions of the voters' pamphlet, it is clear that the voting public likely believed that the exclusive purpose of House Joint Resolution 55 was to finance school construction.  If we were to determine that House Joint Resolution 55 (Amendment 79) and RCW 84.52.053 allow school districts to pass six-year levies solely for the acquisition of computers, furniture, and other equipment, we believe this would be contrary to the intention of the voters who approved House Joint Resolution 55.  We therefore answer your second question in the negative.

 Question 3

             May a school district use levy proceeds from a six-year levy for acquisition and installation of equipment to be used as part of a renovation and modernization project?

             As we have seen, modernization of school facilities financed through six-year levies is authorized by article 7, section 2(a) of the Constitution, and by RCW 84.52.052.  We will now address whether modernization may include the purchase of equipment.  RCW 28A.47.073 deals specifically with modernization of existing school facilities.  It provides:

             Whenever funds are appropriated for modernization of existing school facilities, the state board of education is authorized to approve the use of such  [[Orig. Op. Page 9]] funds for modernization of existing facilities, modernization being limited to major structural changes in such facilities and, as necessary to bring such facilities into compliance with the handicapped access requirements of section 504 of the federal rehabilitation act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. Sec. 706) and rules implementing the act, both major and minor structural changes, and may include as incidental thereto the replacement of fixtures, fittings, furnishings and service systems of a building in order to bring it up to a contemporary state consistent with the needs of changing educational programs.  The allocation of such funds shall be made upon the same basis as funds used for the financing of a new school plant project utilized for a similar purpose.

 In this statute, "modernization" is limited to major structural changes.  Although the statute does not provide a definition of the term "major structural changes", a definition is provided by rule:

                         "Major structural change" shall mean major components of a school facility contributing to the basic structure and shall not include those components such as portable partitions, free‑standing panels and screens, portable equipment, and furnishings that do not contribute to the basic structure.

 WAC 180-33-010.4/

            RCW 28A.47.073 allows for the replacement of fixtures, fittings and furnishings when done in conjunction with major structural changes.  Words of a statute, unless otherwise defined, must be given their usual and ordinary meaning.  Foremost Dairies, Inc. v. State Tax Comm'n, 75 Wn.2d 758, 453 P.2d 870 (1969).  A "fixture" is "anything firmly in place ... any of the fittings or furniture of a house, store, etc., attached to the building and, ordinarily, considered legally a part of it."  Webster's New World Dictionary 529 (1976).  "Fittings" are "the fixtures, furnishings, or decorations of a house, office, automobile, etc."  Webster's New World Dictionary 528 (1976).  "Furnishings" are "the furniture, carpets, and the like for a room, apartment, etc."  Webster's New World Dictionary 567 (1976).  The common dictionary definitions of both the word "equipment" and the word "furniture" contain the term  [[Orig. Op. Page 10]] "furnishing(s)."  Utilizing the usual and ordinary meanings of the foregoing terms, we conclude that both "equipment" and "furniture" are types of "furnishings" for purposes of RCW 28A.47.073.

             The constitutional and statutory provisions authorize the use of six-year excess levies for modernization purposes.  Modernization, for the reasons noted above, connotes major structural changes.  Where such changes are made, they may properly include the replacement of furnishings5/

              (RCW 28A.47.073), and "equipment" such as computers is a type of furnishing.  Thus, where a school district undertakes a modernization program as defined above, the replacement or acquisition of computer equipment as an incidental part of such a program is a permissible use of six-year excess levy funds under the statute.

             We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

 Very truly yours,
KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
Attorney General
MEREDITH WRIGHT MORTON
Assistant Attorney General 

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

 1/This opinion will address three questions, rather than the two which you posed.  The third question derives from an opinion request by Senator Bluechel and it is being included in the response to you because the questions are all so closely related.

 2/You have inquired about furniture, computers, and equipment.  Although RCW 28A.51.010(3) mentions both furniture and equipment, they are not treated differently in the statute nor can we locate any other statutory reference which indicates that we should do so in our analysis.

 3/This is also consistent with the provisions of RCW 84.52.056, which authorizes municipal corporations to issue general obligation bonds for capital purposes only not including the replacement of equipment.

 4/WAC 180-33-010 also contains a definition of "modernization" that is identical in substance to the provisions of RCW 28A.47.073.

 5/The common dictionary definition of "replacement" is "to put back in a former or proper place or position."  Webster's New World Dictionary 1205 (1976).  This might lead one to conclude that the furnishings included in a school district modernization project would have to put the facility back into the same condition that existed prior to the modernization.  This would be an absurd result, particularly when RCW 28A.47.073 allows for the replacement of furnishings of a building "to brings it up to a contemporary state consistent with the needs of changing educational programs."  It is a generally recognized principle of statutory construction that the language of a statute must be read in context with the entire statute and construed consistently with its general purpose.  Wilson v. Lund, 74 Wn.2d 945, 447 P.2d 718 (1968).  In keeping with the overall statutory purpose, we believe that the term "replacement," as used in RCW 28A.47.073, must be interpreted as broad enough to permit the purchase of new, up-to-date equipment and furniture.

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