School Districts and Pre-K Program Suffer Without Capital Budget

Public News Service OLYMPIA, Wash. -- The seemingly endless stalemate over the capital budget is frustrating school districts and attempts to expand the state's preschool program.



More than $1 billion in the budget is for school construction, including in many rural districts in need of renovations such as the Reardan-Edwall School District. Marcus Morgan, the superintendent there, said no major work has been done to the district's buildings in forty years.

He said after 11 failed attempts to pass bonds, it finally looked like Reardan-Edwall was going to get the funds it needed in the capital budget. But those dollars are locked up, and so Morgan said the district went looking to borrow money on the commercial market to keep its project on track.

"The commercial lenders have looked at our books and say, 'Well, your books look fine, you're in great financial shape, but honestly, I don't know that we can trust the Legislature to ever pass a capital projects budget. And you don't have the capacity to pay it off if they don't. So, it's not you, it's just kind of like the Legislature's kind of crazy,'" Morgan said.

State Republicans refuse to pass a budget until the Legislature finds a fix to the Supreme Court's Hirst decision, which deals with water rights in rural parts of the state. Morgan said a solution to the Hirst decision is critical, but he thinks lawmakers should de-couple the issues.

State Democrats have raised the prospect of a special session to reach a deal in December, after the election is validated.

This was also the first year preschools in Washington state were set to get funding to expand, with the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program's goal to reach every child by 2022. They still have a long way to go.

Katy Warren, deputy director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP, said the state recognizes facilities are a major barrier for reaching children, but the work to get buildings ready can't get started. She said the lack of a capital budget hurts building efforts in rural areas the most.

"If you look at a rural area, they may have some empty storefronts, but those storefronts might have asbestos in them or they might just be completely unsuitable," Warren said. "And you have to be able to renovate spaces so that you have little, tiny toilets for children and so that you can meet health requirements."

ECEAP largely supports kids from families who might not otherwise be able to afford preschool or child care. Warren said there's a reason the state has decided to invest in early education: these programs get kids school-ready and actually save for the state money down the line.

 

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