SALT LAKE CITY — A state-by-state comparison of money generated for schools by land in trust shows that Utah — second only to Mississippi — has experienced skyrocketing growth in how much money it has socked away, growing 270 percent since 2001.
Interest and dividends from the fund, valued at $1.3 billion, are returned to public secondary schools statewide, with a record-setting $29 million being distributed to school community councils this year.
Those councils, made up of parents, decide how the money is spent based on identified areas of "critical academic" concerns.
"It is extremely important because it is the only discretionary money every school gets and it is parents deciding how that money is spent," said Margaret Bird, director of the School Children's Trust at the State Office of Education. Bird briefed lawmakers and others this month on the fund's progress, detailing how it stacks up against 19 other states in analysis performed by her office.
The revenue in the Permanent School Trust Fund comes from sections of land granted to Utah at statehood that are then leased for development by the School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration. Those monies are then invested by the state treasurer, with the earnings going to the schools.
Bird said 90 percent of the earnings go to districts to be passed on directly to community councils on a per pupil basis for locally identified needs. The remaining 10 percent is shared evenly among the districts, with eye toward helping the smaller, rural districts, she said.
"For the bigger districts, the most it would work out to be is $45 per pupil, but in Daggett District, which is really tiny, it works out to be more: $451 a child. Their elementary school in Flaming Gorge has 25 kids."
Utah's remarkable growth in its school trust fund over the past decade is the result of better fun management after decades of neglect, Bird said, in addition to what she terms as outright "raids."
While Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming all have revenue from school trust funds topping a quarter of a million dollars per fiscal year, Utah is nowhere close to that, and will not catch them, she conceded.
"Texas and New Mexico and those other states have managed it well from the beginning," she said. "They have managed their land and investments for well over 100 years. They have not had raids on the permanent fund; we had huge raids in Utah."
Utah's trust fund was handled through the lens of a state government agency, with the money going into the same pot as general education money derived from taxes.
Kevin Carter, executive director of SITLA, said it took a constitutional amendment in 1994 to protect the Permanent School Trust Fund from being raided or diluted in any fashion. That same year, the School and Institutional Trusts Lands Administration was established as a quasi-governmental entity and the School Trust Land Program was later formed to distribute the money.
Tim Stay, an Orem resident and father of eight, has been involved in community councils at some level since 2001, and said he has seen school trust dollars work their magic in the Alpine School District.
"When we started with Lakeridge with this money years ago, the school was at the bottom of Alpine School District for academic performance," he said. "It is now in the top of most academic categories."
Stay said the community council decided to spend trust lands money on teacher training, helping them acquire new skills in the classroom to help struggling students.
"We thought that was the best return on our investment," he said. "We were able to, at a grassroots level, decide where those fund were spent and identify those critical academic needs....It made that radical school improvement."
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