Utah school districts make cuts, raise taxes to make ends meet next year
Increased state funding doesn't cover all expenses
SALT LAKE CITY — Many school districts along the Wasatch Front are cutting budgets again this summer while others are raising taxes to make ends meet for the 2011-12 school year.
With about $50 million in additional state money to work with and with the basic unit used to determine per-pupil funding increasing by about $240, some might assume all schools are running in the black. But lower local property-tax values in some areas and a shake-up in the way state education programs are funded have complicated matters.
"There was more money appropriated for education on the whole," said Todd Hauber, associate superintendent of business services at the State Office of Education. "But it all depends on how that money is programmed."
At the beginning of the 2011 legislative session, lawmakers made preliminary cuts to education programs then added the money back in, but not necessarily in the same places.
Depending on which state programs schools participate in, they could wind up with a net loss or a net gain for the coming year, Hauber said. For example, multiple programs designed to fund at-risk youths were consolidated, and about $8 million from those programs was put elsewhere. So districts reliant on those funds will have less to work with. Meanwhile, state funding for school districts that can't generate enough tax revenue to cover their costs increased by more than $23 million, having a positive impact on participating districts.
"Every district will have a unique story," Hauber said.
The Salt Lake School District, for instance, reports taking an overall 2.3 percent hit in state funding, due to its large population of at-risk students. But the Legislature's funding for enrollment growth benefits districts like Alpine that are rapidly expanding.
While lawmakers increased the weighted pupil unit — the per-pupil amount the state from $2,577 to $2,816, those weren't new dollars. Districts previously received money to pay for retirement benefits and Social Security in addition to WPU dollars. About $195 million was taken from the fund many districts used to pay out retirement in order to increase the WPU.
All in all, many districts are doing better than last year, but some are still hurting.
Here's a look at how some of the larger districts along the Wasatch Front are managing their finances:
Alpine didn't face much of a budget shortage this year, according to the district, but does plan to use $7 million in one-time federal funds to pay for some ongoing and future years' expenses.
"Our district is known for being pretty conservative," district spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley said. "Because of that, we were able to kind of work through things these last few years."
The district will see an influx of 2,374 students next year, which will require hiring 90 new full-time teachers, which there is room for in the budget.
Canyons entered the budgeting process facing a possible shortage of around $11.3 million due to restoring five furlough days, which it used last year to save the district money, among other factors. The district also had a drop in state funding of about $3.7 million.
According to the tentative budget approved by the board Tuesday, about $9.2 million of the gap will be covered by shifting money from a fund used for building projects and other capital expenses into the district's general fund. The remaining shortfall was accounted for through other "belt-tightening" measures, according to the district.
The district and local teacher's union are still negotiating and do not have a contract in place. The district factored teacher raises in the budget in anticipation of an agreement.
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