Fall leaves and riverDear Friends and Neighbors,

I’ve had a busy fall, highlighted by a few legislative visits to the sunny eastern side of the state to work more effectively building bridges on key policy areas. For Washington State to make progress on things like wildfire management and education funding, legislators need to better understand the issues as well as the local dynamics around possible solutions.

Wildfires and Forest Health Update

In mid-October, I spent time in Kittitas County, near Ellensburg, with the Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy, learning more about forest health and wildfire management in Washington. As part of the tour, we visited the site of the 2014 Table Mountain Fire, which burned 42,841 acres and was so hot that the soil was sterilized. Foresters estimate that it will take a century for the land and the forest to recover.Charred trees

The last two years have been some of the worst for wildfires in our state since we began tracking them, with well over 900,000 acres burned in Washington during the 2015 season. Almost 3,000 firefighters were deployed, and three lost their lives. More than 175 homes burned in the Okanogan Fire Complex alone, the largest in our state’s history.

Firefighting costs in 2014 totaled over $70 million in state funds, with estimates for 2015 expected to come in at double that amount. When a fire occurs, DNR and other agencies deploy resources as needed, and ask for federal and state funds for reimbursement.

Agency budgets are far lower than the cost to fight fires, with DNR requesting just under $4.5 million (out of a budget of $38 billion) to get back to pre-recession maintenance levels. These funds would be used for increased fire response capability, including fire engine staffing, additional specialized helitack crews, enhanced aerial initial attack capacity and safety, and increased coordination and business support. This year, the Legislature provided only 1/3 of the requested funds.

Forest health tour KittitasThis year the state Commissioner for Public Lands also sought $20 million for preventative measures taken through forest-health programs, including thinning trees and removing dried branches. They received about half of that amount, but during the tour they indicated they will asking for full-funding in 2016 to ensure that future wildfires can be better contained.

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, we need to prioritize funds to, at minimum, ensure we properly prepare communities on both the west and east sides of the state from the wildfires that emerge from dry conditions and poor forest management.

Education Listening Tour

Last week was the final stop on a statewide education listening tour for the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, on which I serve. Over 1,300 people in seven cities attended these meetings – with the biggest turnout right here in Kitsap County.

Throughout the different regions – including Vancouver, Bremerton, Everett, Renton, Spokane, Wenatchee and Yakima – we heard a strong, consistent message from educators, students and families about the problems that persist as a result of the state underfunding schools. The overarching message was loud and clear: Washington’s families are tired of waiting for the state to meet its duty to amply fund education and ensure equity of opportunity for all students – no matter where they live.

It was also clear throughout the tour that our state’s public education infrastructure is crumbling.  From not enough teachers and substitutes to not enough classroom space, the shortages were notable statewide, and common from region to region.Listening Tour Bremerton

For example, the Yakima School District started their school year with 30 vacancies, and this shortage is not the exception. Someone in Spokane said, ‘We’ve seen a deer, an elk and a bear on our school grounds, but not a fourth grade teacher.’  In one rural district, the two new hires this fall were 65 and 67 years old.

We also heard about the need for a renewed level of respect for the professionals in our schools. Many parents spoke about their college-aged kids who would never consider teaching as a profession because the salaries would not allow them to pay off student loans, start a family or buy a house.

Superintendent after superintendent described few applicants for job openings, and losing staff to neighboring districts that could pay higher salaries.    One principal described his district as the “farm team” for their region, expressing frustration at the inability to pay his staff adequately. As someone in Bremerton put it, teacher salaries should be in competition with other industries, not with other districts.

To watch the Bremerton meeting, please click here.

Thank you to all of you who took time out of your busy lives to attend the meeting in Bremerton – I look forward to continuing to work together on this challenge. To view materials from the Bremerton meeting, please click here.

For links to audio recordings of all seven meetings, please click here.

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