Representatives from local school districts presented a range of subjects at the annual Legislative Day event in Cle Elum Tuesday.

The event, held in both Upper and Lower Counties, offers local entities to present updates and ask questions to state Representatives. Representative Tom Dent and Senator Judy Warnick attended both events this year. Representing the education sector at the Cle Elum meeting was Meg Ludlum from the Ellensburg School District, Cle Elum-Roslyn School District Superintendent Gary Wargo and Kittitas School District Interim Superintendent Rich Stewart.

SKILL CENTER POSSIBILITIES

Meg Ludlum, who was recently elected as the legislative representative for the Ellensburg School District attended the event to offer her insights to the lawmakers. She said she was aware of the interest of a technical learning center to be developed within the ESD. Rep. Dent said the subject had come up at the Lower County meeting, and he urged the district to outline its wishes for the program so that funding could be located to do a feasibility study. Dent said there is a similar program in Grant County, the Columbia Basin Technical Skills Center in Moses Lake. He encouraged the district to come visit to see how it operates.

“It’s silly to re-invent the wheel,” Dent said.

Dent said one of the major issues that affects the program in Grant County is the students’ ability to get to the school, due to the rural environment of the county.

“They’re not all coming from Moses Lake,” he said. “They’re coming from all around the basin. It’s a challenge to get them there.”

Both Dent and Warnick were in support of the potential program. Warnick said that each district is different in its needs, with some wanting to retain their students on campus, rather than traveling to a central technical center. Citing the opportunities at the center in Moses lake, she said that type of program offers students an alternative to traditional higher education.

“It might be better for the student themselves to go to a place where they might learn a little more about their career paths rather than college,” she said. “I think the jobs that come from those centers and other programs are in great need to be filled, because a lot of our students aren’t being guided towards that. I would love to see that.”

Warnick said skill centers such as CB Tech are traditionally funded by a combination of the state’s capital budget and local funding, but they are not funded in the same manor as a traditional school district.

“The Legislature and the capital budget folks are looking at how to partner up a little bit better than what we have been doing in the past, because we can’t put a skill center or a tech center in every town or every school district,” she said. “We just can’t afford that. It’s been a while since I’ve heard of a new one being funded.”

Warnick said the path forward towards making the idea a reality is to encourage conversation about it.

“Do the research that’s out there,” she said. “Talk to your school districts, your superintendents, your teachers because they need to be on board as well.”

Warnick felt that the potential technical center could help address the high school dropout rate in the county as well.

“I think we could really give these students an idea of why they have to go to school,” she said. “Being a mathematician and a carpenter go together. Being an auto mechanic and an engineer kind of go together.”

Warnick said she has had conversations with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction State School Superintendent Chris Reykdal about the possibility of getting high school graduation credits for classes taken at skill centers such as CB Tech. She said there is a lot of work that needs to be done to get through programs at the center, yet the students still need to take traditional coursework at the high school level.

“There’s a lot that can be done,” she said.

Ludlum said she does not see the potential jobs that come from an education at skill centers to be alternative career paths.

“It’s a career path,” she said. “We’ve kind of gotten away from it, overemphasizing that everybody needs to go to college. That’s our potentially innovative idea.”

UPPER COUNTY FUNDING ISSUES

Cle Elum-Roslyn School District Superintendent Gary Wargo said a challenge the district faces is working with the state’s prototypical school funding allocation model.

“I think it fits big districts fairly well,” he said.

Small districts like Cle Elum, with 868 students are on the cusp of being able to live within the funding model, according to Wargo. He said the elementary school has 397 students this year, compared to a state average of 400.

“We’re kind of on par with the prototypical model in our elementary,” he said. “Our middle school has 199 students. A prototypical middle school is 432 students, and we’re funded based on that ratio of 200 to 400. Our high school has 259 students and a prototypical high school has 600 students.”

Wargo said this imbalance in ratio creates issues where the district has limited resources to fund the correct amount of staff. He used the example that whereas the district may need four principals, the funding ration only provides for the wage equivalent of 2.5.

“We need more people,” he said. “We need more than 2.5 principals to take care of our three schools. We’re funded for .75 of a superintendent. We really need at least one superintendent for each school district. It’s those kinds of things that add up and create financing problems for schools where we have to use local money, levy money to fund these kinds of services in order to have a viable curriculum and a viable school operation program.”

Wargo said the McCleary decision on public education funding within the state has also strained finances within the district. He said when the district created its annual budget last June, it budgeted for a 3.1 percent salary increase, understanding that was the state cap. With declining revenues, Wargo said the 3.1 percent increase will affect the cash balance for the district, which currently sits at approximately $3 million.

“That’s taken years to rebuild,” he said. “About 20 years ago our district was in financial distress. Changes were made, and reductions were made. Over that 20-year period we’ve built our cash balance up so that it’s in a healthy condition, but that cash balance will disappear in about four years even at 3 percent salary increases.”

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