Enrollment growth, budget errors create funding questions for Utah schools

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25 2012 5:39 p.m. MST

Faced with a growing student population, changes to state statute and lingering budget shortfalls, public education in Utah is estimated to require $137 million to meet its obligations for the 2013-14 school year, according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Faced with a growing student population, changes to state statute and lingering budget shortfalls, public education in Utah is estimated to require $137 million to meet its obligations for the 2013-14 school year, according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.

That figure appeared insurmountable last week, with the state's growing expenses projected to exceed new revenue by nearly $200 million. But Gov. Gary Herbert announced updated revenue projections Tuesday that gave educators new reasons to hope for the best as the 2013 legislative session approaches.

"I think the taxpayers, as well as the government, are very cognizant of the needs of public education," said David Roberts, school finance director for the Utah State Office of Education. "Each year we have more and more kids in public education, and more kids requires more money."

Public school enrollment is expected to grow by 2.2 percent next year, or more than 13,000 students, according to the fiscal analyst's office. That growth is estimated to cost the state $75 million in additional per-pupil funding for the 2013-14 school year.

Statutory changes to the Voted and Board Leeway program, which supplements school districts with smaller bases of property tax payers, will cost an additional $30 million.

The state also must address two separate budgeting shortfalls caused by accounting errors that represent an ongoing cost of $32 million.

In April, a data entry miscalculation was discovered that left the state's per-pupil estimates short by $25 million. As a result of that miscalculation, public education's finances were examined and an additional $7 million budgeting error was discovered in the state's professional staff costs formula, said Bruce Williams, associate superintendent for business and operations.

The miscalculation was addressed during a special session of the Legislature in June. Surplus funds from past years were used as a temporary solution for the current academic year's budget. 

"It will have to be funded in the future," Williams said.

Last week, lawmakers were told to expect about $100 million in new revenues for the fiscal year that begins in July. That figure would have covered roughly one-third of the state's needs, without accounting for any additions lawmakers apply to the budget.

But updated estimates paint a more promising financial picture. Herbert announced that more than $100 million in one-time funding is projected to carry over from the current fiscal year, and revenue growth could be as high as $300 million.

The new scenario described by the governor would mean more than $400 million for lawmakers to spend during the upcoming Legislative session. Instead of falling short of the state's needs, as previously anticipated, the new projections provide some budgetary breathing room over the state's list of expected increases, which add up to some $284 million.

Roberts said education officials recognize there is only so much money to go around. But Utah lawmakers, he said, have demonstrated in the past their commitment to public education and their desire to support Utah's students.

Similarly, the state's schools have a proven record of maximizing resources, Roberts said. Utah students are consistently competitive with their national peers, despite being some of the lowest funded in the country.

"You take what you're given, and you do the most you can with it," Roberts said. "Our public education does an incredible job with the money they have to spend."

Martell Menlove, who will assume the role of state superintendent of public instruction in January, said he's encouraged by the conversations he's had with both lawmakers and the governor, who has made education a key component of his budget priorities through goals such as the Prosperity 2020 campaign.

Menlove also said that as Utah continues to rebound from the economic recession, there will be more opportunities to explore sources of revenue for public education.

"I would say I'm optimistic," he said.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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