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Federal stimulus funds for teachers may face a fight in Utah

Published: Friday, Aug. 13 2010 5:31 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — When President Barack Obama signed an education jobs bill into law Tuesday, the clock started ticking.

The bill provides $10 billion in funding to the states for teacher or school staff salaries. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has until Sept. 9 to apply for $101 million designated as Utah's portion.

If he applies for the funding, a special session of the Utah Legislature would be required because the dollar amount is higher than $10 million.

The State Office of Education estimates 1,400 to 1,500 school employees' jobs could be saved. Federal estimates put that number as high as 1,800 jobs.

Lost jobs generally mean more students per classroom.

Herbert said Wednesday that he is committed to reducing classroom size in Utah, because it is critical to the success of schoolchildren and the future of the state.

"This may provide an opportunity where we can do something meaningful to address that challenge," he said.

But it will take some study to see if accepting the money is the right thing to do, Herbert said, adding that he has meetings with legislative and education leaders planned for early in the coming week to consider "the ways to best seize this opportunity."

The funding may face a fight in Utah, where a growing number of voices, including the Sutherland Institute and the Utah Legislature's Patrick Henry Caucus, are calling on the state to reject the federal money.

"Local control of public schools is essential for meeting the unique needs of Utah's children, and accepting any federal dollars makes Utah schools more beholden to and dependent upon the federal government," the Sutherland Institute stated in a news release Friday.

Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said the 32-member Patrick Henry Caucus, of which he is a co-founder, is unanimously opposed to accepting the federal money.

Wimmer called the education jobs bill a political maneuver by Democrats to gather support for the November election.

"It's always tempting to take money, particularly when you're in a recession-type environment," Wimmer said. "Some person or some state or some group has got to stand up and say no."

If a governor doesn't apply for the funding within 30 days of the law's enactment, the funds for that state could be sent to another state.

And to Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, that makes it seem foolish not to accept the money.

"Will we turn it down? Heavens, no," Waddoups said Thursday.

But first the state needs to determine if any strings are attached. And many of those conversations are expected during the coming week, when the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee meets Tuesday and during the August Interim on Wednesday.

Waddoups said a one-time shot in the arm, after cuts have already been made, could minimize the impact to teachers' jobs. The time could allow more teachers to work toward tenure, or just keep them employed long enough for an economic recovery.

But he acknowledged that even if Herbert applies for the funding, because the amount is larger than $10 million, the Utah Legislature would have to approve its acceptance.

For Wimmer, it's fine if another state takes the money.

"Let them. At least then we can hold our heads high knowing we did not participate in the bankrupting of our nation," he said. "(The federal debt and deficit) is probably the No. 1 threat to our nation right now."

e-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com Twitter: dnewspolitics

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