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Public education budget beefs up in final weeks

Published: Wednesday, March 2 2011 9:54 p.m. MST

Copyright Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The 7 percent cut to public education's budget is back to zero, according GOP legislative leadership, after weeks of wrangling that at one point escalated education budget cuts to 11 percent.

As the budget moves toward finalization, lawmakers intend to allocate between $43 million and $53 million to public education to fund new students, said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. That's in addition to funding at last year's level.

The state won't be allocating more dollars per student, but it does plan on accounting for the estimated additional 14,700 students expected to enter the system, he said.

House Republicans are still reviewing the entire budget proposal developed by House and Senate GOP leadership, but Senate Republicans are in agreement with what will amount to a 1 percent cut in Gov. Gary Herbert’s $11.9 billion spending plan. Earlier in the session, lawmakers approved a preliminary base budget that chopped 7 percent from every department, and even more from public education.

The State Board of Education estimated funding growth would cost more than $70 million. And while the numbers lawmakers are talking about are lower, that's better than budget cuts, said Todd Hauber, associate superintendent for business at the State Office of Education.

"It seems to be going in the right direction," he said.

Hauber said his office is optimistic about the numbers it's hearing.

"The question is just that the money that was cut to put the base budget together may not come back into the same places," Hauber said.

About $166 million, or 7 percent, was initially cut from a variety of programs. Now that lawmakers are planning on restoring those cuts, it's unclear if they are allocated in the same manner.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers will fund an optional extended-day kindergarten program that was on the governor's wish list and costs $7.5 million. The program would be an extension of a pilot program that ends this summer.

The proposed budget does allocate $7.5 million in one-time dollars to an "early intervention" program that is a consolidation of other programs. 

"Schools could do with it what they want," Hillyard said.

It's unclear if those dollars are to be a substitute for an extended-day kindergarten program, or if additional funding will be applied to such a program as per the governor's request.

A recent poll shows that's how a majority of Utahns want the money spent.

According to a Deseret News/KSL poll of 496 Utahns, 77 percent of Utahns are in favor of continuing to provide the program for at-risk children. The poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates was conducted Feb 8-10, 2011, and has a 4.4 percent margin of error.

Hillyard said he's pleased with the work he and his fellow lawmakers have accomplished in funding schools while significantly decreasing a structural imbalance caused by federal stimulus funds no longer coming into state coffers.

"We've not increased taxes," he said. "We've fully funded education."

Hillyard said he and his colleagues will decide on exactly how much they'll spend on growth this week.

The Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet late Thursday afternoon to finalize the budget so it can be ready for lawmakers to vote on in the final days of the session, which ends March 10.

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com, lisa@desnews.com

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