$2M in House Capital Budget Could Fund Early Learning Center


Those curious about the $2 million appropriation for a “Centralia-Chehalis Early Learning Conversion Project” in the 2019-2021 state capital budget proposed by the House Capital Budget Committee won’t find many clues about it in the budget document or other resources.

That’s because it is, for the moment, an idea that only exists largely through informal conversations between community stakeholders and state legislators. 

State Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, inserted the appropriation in hopes of being able to fund a pilot project to offer free daycare services to area families by converting an unused facility within the Centralia or Chehalis school districts. 

Services providing a boost to young families have taken on an increased focus in recent years from local nonprofits such as the United Way of Lewis County and Reliable Enterprises. Studies have shown an emphasis on early-life programs can not only boost a child’s development but have a positive impact on local economies by allowing young and single parents a better chance to pursue career-track employment.

“It’s a topic that’s moving to the forefront for people not only at the federal level, but here in Washington,” DeBolt said. “And so we’re trying to lead the way on that.”

The appropriation, as well as many others contained in the House capital budget draft, did not appear in the Senate’s proposed budget. DeBolt said Friday the House is on track to pass its version with the Senate soon to follow. Representatives from both legislative chambers will then begin the process of reconciliation to produce a singular document.

The funding model submitted with the proposal requires the project take place within an existing school building. Centralia City Councilor Peter Abbarno has been part of early talks among stakeholders and noted the potential for a private school to become a partner along with the public bodies.

Ed Petersen, public relations and communications coordinator for the Centralia School District, said the district has been part of a “couple of conversations” about the proposal. Both the old Fords Prairie or Jefferson Lincoln elementary schools are slated to be demolished this summer ahead of their replacements opening to students this fall. However, the district is looking into other options and ideas for space.

“We’re really in the early phases of it, sort of a wait and see,” Petersen said. “It’s an interesting idea as a whole, and we want to help (DeBolt) to see if we can find some solutions.”

Chehalis School District Superintendent Ed Rothlin said the United Way of Lewis County has expressed interest in using space in the Chehalis School District for the conversion project.

The school district is currently looking to sell the R.E. Bennett and Cascade Elementary School properties that have been replaced by two new elementary school buildings.

The Port of Chehalis Commission and the Chehalis School Board approved a joint feasibility study last year that gives the port right of first refusal when it comes to making an offer for the properties.

Port of Chehalis CEO Randy Mueller said during a commission meeting Thursday that he’s learned as part of the ongoing feasibility study that a daycare would be one of the most expensive projects to undertake, because it comes with the most requirements for operation. Mueller was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.

“The port doesn’t need to make money,” Rothlin said. “They can’t lose money — that’s really important. But, they don’t need to make money. If it’s for the good of the community and they’re not going to lose money, they’re interested. Because the better the community is, the more attractive it is, the more business will come to the port.”

Should the appropriation make it into the final bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee and the pilot project take shape, community leaders hope it can serve as a springboard for further integration and growth of early learning programs across the Twin Cities and Lewis County.

Abbarno mentioned the possibility of partnering with Centralia College and its Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program to maybe add an after-school component on its end.

“I think the possibilities to expand just on early learning can really transform the community,” Abbarno said. “It would be an amazing economic development boost to allow working families and single parents to advance their careers, go to school and get job-related training. I think once we find a location, building the partnerships to make it a reality is going to go pretty quickly.”