SALT LAKE CITY — Many educators in Utah are "encouraged" by Gov. Gary Herbert's budget recommendations released last week, but as far-reaching and expensive as education is, there's bound to be some give and take when lawmakers meet to hammer out the final budget.
Herbert proposes putting up $50 million to fund about 14,700 new students, and an additional $7.5 million to continue an optional extended-day kindergarten program for fiscal year 2012.
Herbert's recommendations go a long way toward meeting the priorities of the State Office of Education, which recently voted to ask the Legislature for an additional $76 million in education spending. Herbert's proposed budget increases public education funding by about $63 million.
"We know that the governor has to strike a balance between the needs of public education and other ongoing funding requirements. He has done just that in this budget proposal," according to a statement from Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association.
Larry Newton, school finance director for the Utah State Office of Education, said there are a few aspects of Herbert's proposed budget that could prove problematic.
Typically, the state funds somewhere around 85 percent of school transportation costs, with local districts making up the rest. Herbert has allocated $6.3 million of one-time funds for to-and-from-school transportation, which equates to around 73 percent of total costs. That money isn't coming from ongoing funding, and that has implications for next year.
"It's good, but it's still going to be tight," Newton said. "It means we have to go back and fight again."
Newton said some legislators don't consider it a state responsibility to pay for school transportation, and he hopes the decrease of funding in recent years isn't a step in that direction.
"If you don't provide the money to get the students to the teachers, then it comes out of the classroom," he said, because districts will have to make up the difference using general funds.
While the overall budget for education is decidedly bigger than in years past, funding typically used by districts to pay retirement benefits and into Social Security has decreased, Newton said. For 2011, more than $277.4 million was allocated to a line item known as Flexible Allocation WPU Distribution that usually goes to employee retirement and Social Security. Herbert has allocated about $260.3 million for 2012 — a difference of more than $17 million.
"(Districts) don't have a choice, you have to pay Social Security. ... These are pretty fixed costs," Newton said. "It's very difficult for a school district."
Local districts will have to find money in their general funds to account for that decrease. Newton said he's hopeful, however, that more accurate and favorable revenue estimates will be available when it's time for the Legislature to decide how to appropriate funds.
"We're hoping that this 17.1 loss will be mitigated by additional revenues that the Legislature may choose to put there," he said.
Ultimately, it's up to the Legislature to decide how much money to dedicate to education and what the spending priorities will be.