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Yakima Valley residents share what they’d like to see out of the Legislature in 2019

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Legislature

A collage of images represents the array of complex problems facing Washington state, including environmental polices, gun legislation, education funding, agriculture and business.

Between the first day of the legislative session Monday and the last scheduled day April 28, state lawmakers will need to tackle a host of complex problems and pass a budget.

Area legislators say mental health, education funding and taxes will be among the hot topics. Yakima Valley residents have their own set of priorities.

With 105 days in the session, time is limited. Here’s what community members said they’d like to see from Olympia this year:

Education

Mabton School District Superintendent Joey Castilleja said that a lot has changed for education in the past year, especially regarding state funding. The Legislature completely revamped funding after the state Supreme Court ruled that the state wasn’t adequately covering the costs of K-12 education.

Most districts are settling into a new reality of school funding, structure and operations.

“It is my hope that our legislators realize that the work is far from over,” he said via email. Small districts are struggling with the “prototypical school” funding model, he said.

Small districts often face a funding calculation that breaks down staffing of teachers, administrators, and classified staff by fractions of a person. People are typically hired as full-time employees, he said.

In theory, the model would work if any teacher could teach any subject, “but the reality is our teachers are highly trained specialists,” Castilleja said.

“I hope that our legislators will support that small districts require a supplement in their funding to stay ‘whole.’ Larger districts benefitted from ‘regionalization,’ widening the gap in offerings for the students of small, rural schools,” he said.

“We need to consider a similar supplement in funding to allow small districts to provide equitable courses and services for all.”

Among small districts, special education is a particular concern. Castilleja said he hopes legislators can consider ways of offering flexibility in special education program design, keeping in mind the challenges rural schools have when serving one student with a highly specialized need.

“Our most vulnerable students have needs that are specialized and specific. This comes at a cost,” he said. “The unmet special education need in our state comes in at around $300 million. These shortages are even more impactful on small systems with limited resources.

“It is morally right to ensure all students get what they need to be successful.”

Amanda Shipman, a parent and president of the Robertson Elementary School PTA in Yakima, said incorporating social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices into schools is one of five state PTA priorities this session. It’s something she has first-hand experience with: Her high school-age son overdosed at school and survived, she said. It’s something that staff need to be equipped to deal with, she said.

Social-emotional learning involves creating a safe environment at school for kids, training staff and supporting students. More counselors are needed, she said.

“Every school has a shortage of counselors,” she said.

She said it’s also important to have resources for schools to engage families in education. The Yakima district used to have family-community coordinators, but resources have been limited lately.

Another PTA goal is to change the ballot requirements to pass school construction bond measures from 60 percent voter approval to a simple majority, she said. The change would make it easier to improve school facilities.

Agriculture

Apple grower Mike Saunders says lawmakers need to rethink the minimum wage and how increases are impacting agriculture.

The minimum wage recently increased to $12 an hour, and next year it will climb to $13.50. After that, minimum wage increases will be systematically adjusted as the cost of living increases.

Saunders, a principal with Apple King, says the $1.50 increase next year alone will drastically affect many farmers, especially smaller ones who are now struggling to find enough labor and cannot afford to tap guest worker programs that require growers to provide housing and other living amenities.

Furthermore, smaller farmers cannot simply increase prices in response to wages like other businesses such as restaurants or retail operations.

“It’s going to drive people out of business,” Saunders said. “In agriculture, there is no way to say ‘OK, wages are going up, so I’ll just increase my price.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”

Saunders said lawmakers and the public shouldn’t be allowed to directly decide wages.

“They need to let wage increases be the businesses’ responsibility, not something dictated by the Legislature or voters,” he said. “Voters will vote for pay raises all the time.”

Environment and the outdoors

Celisa Hopkins, executive director of the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy, said she supports Gov. Jay Inslee’s efforts to fully fund the program that makes payments to local governments in lieu of taxes that would have been collected on exempt state-owned lands.

“We work in partnership with (the Department of Fish and Wildlife), and it makes it easier to work with them when there is local support, and not the resistance because they are taking money out of the local tax base,” Hopkins said.

The conservancy is a nonprofit land trust dedicated to protecting the shrub-steppe habitat. Hopkins said she would like to see the Legislature commit more money to support conservation programs, which in turn leads to tourism and recreation users coming to an area and supporting the economy.

Yakima Greenway executive director Kellie Connaughton believes continued funding for communities to expand recreational and conservation opportunities for better health and awareness should be a priority this Legislative session.

Connaughton supports grants like one that would allow the Greenway to re-construct a portion of the path near Union Gap washed out by flooding in recent years. The state awards several organizations money for conservation as well as expanding and rebuilding trails.

Connaughton also stressed the importance of trails and bike paths for commuter routes as part of transportation plans. Yakima’s Master Bike Plan adopted by the city last March lacks a dedicated funding source and could benefit from state grants, she said.

Julie Richardson of Yakima would like to see the Legislature continue proposing sound environmental policies. This state needs “to make sure we’re good stewards of our land and resources,” she said.

She also supports legislation that would better regulate access to guns. “I own a gun and my family grew up hunting, but too many people are dying from guns,” she said.

The 61-year-old instructional designer and program manager said that sound policy and fiscal responsibility also are important. “I want to know how we’re going to pay for some of these things,” she said.

And with gun legislation, she has been wary of policies that include accessing mental health records as part of a background check, such as the one proposed in a voter initiative.

“I don’t always believe that information gets used for the right reasons,” she said. “How long will that information reside in your state (data) because I registered for a gun?”

Finally, she believes the Legislature can help the state be a nationwide leader in finding innovative solutions to health care.

Richardson is a guardian for her sister, who is handicapped. She notes that if her sister has issues with accessing health care, her family has the means to help her.

“How do we take care of those citizens who don’t have the resources?”

Mental health

Justin Bigby, a 51-year-old Yakima resident, supports ongoing efforts by the Legislature and Gov. Inslee to increase funding for mental health.

Bigby, who is between jobs, feels that when it comes to health care, the U.S. “tends to have ‘a better take care of yourself’ mentality.”

He believes it should be the opposite. He compares it to farming: A farmer wouldn’t just leave his or her crop to grow on its own without tending to it. Likewise, he sees a case for the government to tend to its crop, the residents.

“How well you’re cared for plays a lot in determining how well you perform,” he said. “If the government wants (citizens who) produce at their maximum potential, they need to invest in us.”

Bigby would also like to see the Legislature work on improving transportation in the state, especially if it means improving people’s ability to travel statewide. While there are options, such as taking a bus, flying or driving, for people traveling from the Yakima Valley to Seattle, Bigby feels there’s room for improvement.

“I wish for this side of the mountain to have reliable public transit across the state,” he said.

Staff writers Miles Jay Oliver, Tammy Ayer, Phil Ferolito, Mai Hoang, Joanna Markell, Donald W. Meyers and Luke Thompson contributed to this report.

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