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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Inslee visits Vancouver elementary school, talks special education challenges with teachers, staff, parents

Governor says repeal of capital gains tax would ‘dig hole deeper’

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 9, 2024, 6:01pm
9 Photos
Gov. Jay Inslee, second from right, and his wife, Trudi, meet with local teachers, parents, administrators and staff in Vancouver to talk about special education challenges on Friday afternoon at Ogden Elementary School. Inslee said he planned to take stories about the staff&rsquo;s experience in special education with him to future conversations with state legislators about education funding challenges.
Gov. Jay Inslee, second from right, and his wife, Trudi, meet with local teachers, parents, administrators and staff in Vancouver to talk about special education challenges on Friday afternoon at Ogden Elementary School. Inslee said he planned to take stories about the staff’s experience in special education with him to future conversations with state legislators about education funding challenges. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Rachel Wassner is a vocal parent. When her son began middle school, he started to slip. His school, Wassner said, couldn’t provide the depth of special education services he needed. It left him quiet, confused and lost.

“He went from being our happy young child to being suicidal,” she said. “There just wasn’t the proper funding to help him.”

She said once her son advanced to Skyview High School, its “robust” programs uplifted him in a way she hadn’t seen before. Staff sought to understand what he needed to succeed, and he transformed.

“We got our child back,” Wassner said.

Although her son’s story is gut-wrenching, she wants to tell it as many times as she can to help people understand the importance of proper special education services.

On Friday, she told the story to Gov. Jay Inslee.

Inslee visited Ogden Elementary School in Vancouver on Friday — his 73rd birthday — to observe paraeducators in action and hear stories from staff and parents like Wassner about what needs to change in Washington’s special education landscape.

“Kids getting that one-on-one time with paraeducators is so vital,” said Inslee, who was joined by his wife, Trudi, for the visit. “That’s been our experience with our son and grandkids.”

Increased needs

Along with Wassner were leaders from throughout Vancouver Public Schools, including special educators, union leaders and Superintendent Jeff Snell. A common question united the room: Where’s the funding for special education?

“Our student needs are increasing, but the need for paraeducators is even greater. We have open positions we can’t fill,” said Tracie Barrows, a Vancouver school board director and school psychologist in a neighboring district. “I fully support increasing their pay as a way to get there. … My biggest concern is the ability to fund that.”

Dara Jones, a learning support specialist at Ogden, confirmed Barrows’ sentiments about student social emotional needs on the rise. Last year, she said, Ogden had around 40 children on individualized education plans for special services. This year that number is well over 50.

“That’s the story everywhere, that the numbers are increasing as are the severity of student behaviors,” Inslee said.

The governor’s biggest concern this year is the possibility of losing the capital gains tax to a state GOP-backed effort. If repealed, the state could lose up to $6 billion in education funding through 2029.

“The most important thing in my book is to preserve what we have. We won’t have that if the capital gains tax disappears,” Inslee said. “The first order of business is to not dig the hole deeper. Then, as the economy improves, we can work on pay increases.”

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Funding models

Jamie Anderson, the president of the Vancouver Education Association, asked Inslee if there were any discussions scheduled to reevaluate the school funding model, which sets the amount of state funding school districts receive.

Over the years, the model has scarcely been adjusted for changing school needs, educators said. The issue requires individual districts to run local levies to help supplement other positions and services not funded by the state but still deemed crucial by community members.

“I understand we’re in a triage situation. But is there a task force in place to start reviewing the model?” Anderson asked the governor. “All this other staffing has to be picked up at a local level, which is why we’re now in a budget crisis.”

Inslee said he understood Vancouver’s plight but that such an overhaul isn’t on the table for the current legislative session.

“It’ll probably come (next) January,” he said.

Raises still a goal

While Inslee said his eyes are set on avoiding “drilling more holes” in Washington’s education budget, he’s working with state legislators to pass a statewide pay increase for paraeducators. Inslee’s proposed 2024 supplemental budget includes an additional $64 million for a $3 per hour wage increase for the state’s 32,000 paraeducators.

Other bills floating in the state legislature are aiming for similar raises. If passed, Senate Bill 6082 would increase paraeducator wages by up to $7 per hour. The starting wage for a general paraeducator in Vancouver Public Schools is $20.63 per hour as of the 2021-2022 school year, according to the district’s most recent collective bargaining agreement with the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals.

Inslee told staff at the discussion Friday it was critical that they continue to contact their legislators to make them aware of how important the issue is to them. He promised to take stories like Wassner’s into his own meetings with state leaders to help them feel the gravity of paraeducators’ plights.

“We’ve made substantial progress. There’s more paraeducators than 12 years ago. But there’s more work to do,” he said. “I hope (other leaders) will follow my lead on wage increases for paraeducators. It’s necessary to retain and recruit these people.”

After letting loose a brief sigh of relief as the governor left for his next engagement, Matt Kauffman, Ogden’s principal, said the whirlwind visit ended up being “pretty awesome.”

“It sounded like he already had a good grasp on issues that we are facing, especially today in the current budget reality,” Kauffman said. “It was encouraging to hear that his top priority is enduring current funding levels with the hopes of increasing funding.”


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include details about paraeducator pay raises in Gov.  Jay Inslee’s proposed 2024 supplemental budget. 

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