Local agencies mostly pleased with state budget

As heads of local government agencies assess how they fared in the $33.6 billion state operating budget passed over the weekend, many are pleased, pointing to increased funding for Grays Harbor College and local school districts, and maintained funding for social programs.

The state House and Senate finally passed the two-year budget on Friday after six months in regular session and two overtime special sessions. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the budget into law Sunday.

Local Senator Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said he was pleasantly surprised with how the budget turned out for the county as a whole, especially with so much focus being placed on K-12 education this year in response to a lawsuit forcing the state’s hand on more school funding. Hargrove said he wanted to make sure that hospitals, crime prevention programs and state parks didn’t fall through the cracks.

“I’m confident that they didn’t do any real damage to the rest of the budget when fixing the education system,” Hargrove said.

A step in the right direction for K-12

The budget directed $1 billion in additional funding toward the state’s K-12 education system. The additional funding is in response to a 2012 Washington Supreme Court decision, known as the McCleary Decision, that the state was failing to adequately fund education. Lawmakers have until 2018 to fix the problem.

Tom Opstad, superintendent of the Aberdeen School District, and Mike Parker, superintendent of the Hoquiam School District, both said this year’s budget is a good start but doesn’t go far enough.

“They made a small step I think,” Parker said. “But there’s still so much more to do.”

One of the biggest successes of the budget, the superintendents said, was increased funding for kindergarten. Opstad said it will pay for all-day kindergarten at McDermoth Elementary in the upcoming school year.

The Hoquiam School District has offered all-day kindergarten for six years, but in the past it was half state-funded and half funded by levies. In the upcoming school year, the state will fully fund the program, freeing up about $300,000.

“That’s money we’ll divert back to the students with paraeducators and (by) adding technology to the classrooms,” Parker said.

Even with the additional funding, the Hoquiam School District will likely run a maintenance and operations levy in February.

Hargrove said the all-day kindergarten funding is the most important thing to come out of the education overhauls, especially in a district with high unemployment. All-day kindergarten helps put low-income students on par with students in wealthier districts, he said.

The budget also increases the amount of money provided to schools for materials, supplies and operation costs. Districts will now be provided $170 per full-time student, Opstad said. Schools will also receive more money for transportation and guidance councillors.

Both superintendents said they’re disappointed about the lack of funding for cost of living raises for teachers.

“To not have cost of living increases when other public employees have them can be disheartening,” Opstad said.

Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, said in a press release that the Legislature failed to set aside enough funding for K-12 education this biennium. He estimated that funding all-day kindergarten, creating smaller classes, funding transportation, providing money for supplies and increasing teacher pay would cost about $8 billion. Early in the session, Dorn suggested the Legislature provide $4 billion for K-12 education this biennium.

“Despite all the hard work this session, we have barely begun to make progress toward full state funding,” Dorn said. “We have five more years, and we’re still roughly $7 billion short.”

A positive budget for Grays Harbor College

Grays Harbor College President Ed Brewster said the college fared well in this year’s budget, especially when compared to previous budgets. The college will suffer no new cuts during the 2014-2015 biennium, and will actually have some funding reinstated.

About $18.5 million will be restored to community colleges statewide, but Brewster said he’s unsure of how much of this money Grays Harbor College will receive.

Local college students have cause to be happy, as Grays Harbor College and other community colleges won’t be raising tuition in the next year. Brewster said this is a huge victory for students, as Grays Harbor College has seen tuition increase by 44 percent in the past four years.

“With no tuition increases, that’s a huge win for students,” Brewster said. “Absolutely huge.”

Tuition rates at state-funded universities will also stay the same.

With reinstated funding, the college will be able to afford pay increases for some staff and faculty. The college’s classified employees — office assistants, food service employees and maintenance staff — took a 3 percent pay cut in recent years. But their wages will be restored with the reinstated funding.

Some faculty members will also be offered incremental pay increases based on the amount of time they’ve worked at the college.

“We’re not able to increase across the board, but we will be able to do some increases,” Brewster said. “And that’s more than we’ve been able to do for a few years.”

Maintained funding for health and social programs

Despite early concerns, funding for local health and social programs will remain about the same this biennium, and the changes that were made were mostly positive, said Joan Brewster, the director of the Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services and is married to Ed Brewster.

Joan Brewster and Sen. Hargrove both said they’re happy with the state’s decision to maintain funding for chemical dependency treatment programs, and Hargrove said the decision will save the state money in the long run.

“If people aren’t taken care of, they start ending up in more expensive systems, like hospitals and the criminal justice systems,” Hargrove. “If we start undoing these measures, we’re going to see the crime rate tipping up.”

The public health aspect of Brewster’s department will also receive the same amount of money, but three of the revenue streams have been combined. The department typically receives about $147,000 from motor vehicle excise taxes, $71,200 in Blue Ribbon Commission healthcare funding and $40,460 in Community Development funding. The county will now receive that money all at once.

“We’ll still get the same amount of money, but it will be streamlined and come directly to us,” Brewster said. “We’ll also have more autonomy in deciding which areas need funding.”