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Local school officials say the state Senate’s unanimous approval of a bill to increase special education funding is a good first step, but it still leaves a budget gap for some districts.

“Though that change is appreciated … there is still over $1 million that will remain between what our actual costs are and what the state and the federal government provide,” said Longview Superintendent Dan Zorn.

Senate Bill 5091 would increase the special-ed funding by about $290,000 for Longview and about $222,000 more for Kelso, according to officials from each district. In effect, schools would get double the state basic education funding allotment for each special ed student, up to 13.5 percent of the district’s population.

“This money itself would be directed to special education. But what it would do is free up our local levy dollars to an equivalent amount,” said Scott Westlund, Kelso School District finance director.

Kelso schools use about $1 million of locally raised money to offset the costs for additional special education staff and services not covered by the state. In Longview, that number is around $1.4 million.

Most often these costs are associated with serving the special ed student population beyond the state average 13.5 percent. About 15 percent of the students in Kelso and about 18.7 percent in Longview qualify for special ed programs.

When the legislative session started in January, educators across the state pressured lawmakers to fully fund special education, eliminating the need to spend large amounts of locally raised money on such services.

Although SB 5091 doesn’t meet that request in its entirety, it makes “incremental progress in ... finding a way to fully fund special education,” Westlund said.

Zorn added that the Senate’s approval of the bill is “promising relative to additional revenue” for special education.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said the bill is a “very good move” for state legislators, even if it doesn’t completely solve the problem.

“Of the things we accomplished on K-12 over the last few years, one thing we didn’t get done was to properly address special education,” Braun said.

The proposed increase is part of the Legislature’s “huge investment in K-12” over the last biennium, Braun said. In total, special education funding would increase from $2 billion in the 2017-19 biennium to $2.9 billion in the 2019-21 biennium, Braun said.

All 46 senators present for the vote supported SB 5091, including bill co-sponsor Sen. Dean Takko, a Longview Democrat.

“I think everyone just realized we have a problem funding special education,” Takko said. “We have all heard from our school districts about special education. It’s no surprise that it passed like this.”

The bill now advances to the House of Representatives for consideration.

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