WA Legislature ramps up school construction spending

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Washington lawmakers approved plans on Wednesday to spend $306 million more on school construction.

The funds are part of the capital budget passed by the House and Senate. The legislation now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk for a final sign-off.

The money for schools is spread across four areas: the School Construction Assistance Program, small districts, career and technical education facilities and heating, cooling and ventilation systems.

Lawmakers raised state support for the School Construction Assistance Program from $271.61 to $375 per square foot. This is the maximum cost per square foot of construction the state will cover through the program. The change amounts to an increase of about $79 million.

Usually, the Legislature only increases that amount by around $5 per square foot to adjust for inflation, said Democrats’ lead on the capital budget, Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah. Mullet said that to his knowledge, this is the largest jump in funding the program has ever had.

Republican lead negotiator Rep. Peter Abbarno of Centralia said he hopes the additional funding will incentivize school districts, including districts with thinner property tax collections, to pass bonds for construction, as districts have to provide some money upfront before obtaining the state funds.

Small districts that may have difficulty accessing the school construction assistance money will receive an additional $114 million through the Small District & Tribal Compact Modernization program, which helps districts that have difficulty passing bonds for construction due to their small size.

Another $68 million will go to skill centers and other career and technical education facilities. Washington’s 14 skill centers provide career and technical education instruction for high school students in multiple districts.

The remaining $45 million will go to repairing and replacing heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems, as well as other air quality improvements in schools. Much of the HVAC funding is set aside for smaller districts as well.

The increase in school construction funding comes after Washington’s Supreme Court ruled last year that the state is not responsible for 100% of school construction costs, calling it a shared responsibility between the district and the state.

One justice, Charles Johnson, wrote in a concurring opinion that the state’s system for funding school construction is unfair to small districts.

“Even though we won the lawsuit, we’re still responding in this capital budget in a way that acknowledges the state can be a better financial partner for our local school districts,” Mullet said. However, Mullet said the Legislature made the changes not in response to the court decision but because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Abbarno noted that there’s $1 million included in the capital budget to create a workgroup dedicated to creating a proposal to reform the School Construction Assistance Program to better serve smaller districts.

“We need to sit down and figure out: ‘How do we better partner with our school districts?’” Abbarno said. “We’ve got to do a better job to create a more equitable distribution of those funds.”

by Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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