Lev Dolgachov, Syda Productions - Fotolia
SALT LAKE CITY — A committee of lawmakers settled last week on a preliminary funding proposal that would give about $300 million in new money to public schools, with more than $266 million of it as ongoing funding.
That amount would include more than $94 million to accommodate enrollment growth in Utah's K-12 classrooms. It also designates an increase of 2.5 percent, or $70 million, to the weighted pupil unit, Utah's formula for equalized school funding distribution.
Some schools could benefit from the equivalent of a 4 percent weighted pupil unit increase because of legislation that improves funding equity between district and charter schools.
The combined increase in discretionary money from the formula and equity funding would be about $112 million overall — more than the $90.7 million increase to the weighted pupil unit requested by the Utah State Board of Education but short of the $130 million increase proposed by Gov. Gary Herbert.
"It's in the ballpark of what we're asking for," said State School Board Chairman David Crandall. "Hopefully the districts will use the flexibility wisely in targeting student achievement, which is our ultimate goal. The more we can see that that's the priority of districts, I think the more we'll be able to continue requesting that flexibility from the Legislature."
But dollar amounts in the final education budget could likely fall short of what the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee recommended Thursday. Revised income tax revenue estimates won't be available until the end of February, and they're projected to produce less than the $266 million of ongoing funds included in the subcommittee's proposal, Crandall said.
"It will be something significantly less than that," he said.
The committee's recommendation provides funding for roughly 50 budgetary items and legislative requests, almost half of which were fully funded in one-time and ongoing money. Some line items were given extra funds, such as the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program, which could receive an increase of $5 million this year.
Other funding asks came in well under their original requested amounts. The State School Board has asked the Legislature for $100 million for a classroom technology initiative, which would begin implementing a 1-to-1 student device program in schools. But the subcommittee recommended $25 million for the program, with $10 million ongoing.
The subcommittee also cut the price tag to $10 million for a bill that asks for $30 million to improve professional learning opportunities for teachers.
Eleven line items were not counted in the subcommittee's funding proposal, including a $10 million request to replace or retrofit overpolluting diesel school buses.
"We took the input of all of the (subcommittee) members who participated and have come up with something we hope works for everyone, because I think we've taken care of just about everyone in some degree or another," said Draper Republican Howard Stephenson, Senate chairman of the subcommittee.
Lawmakers have yet to prioritize each funding request. But they anticipate that funding for enrollment growth and an increase of some kind to the weighted pupil unit will take precedence over other requests for ongoing funds.
Another high priority for the Legislature is school funding equity, which comes in response to a property tax increase passed last year as an effort to equalize school funding. SB38 seeks to equalize funding even further by providing money to charter schools that have historically been included only in the funding calculation for district schools.
The bill also includes provisions to give more money to some of Utah's lowest income districts, where tax effort is high but revenue yield is low. Stephenson said he hopes to see that equalization effort continue in future legislative sessions.
"It's my hope that we can take something equivalent to the weighted pupil unit," he said, "and increase that equalization funding every year."
But some lawmakers question the process of designating money for school funding equalization each year as it would only benefit a select number of schools. Putting money directly into the weighted pupil unit, however, would spread the funding more evenly across all districts and charters, according to Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights.
"I think in this change to equity funding, perhaps we're making it too quickly without it being properly vetted," Poulson said. "I think it would be different if we put a 4 percent or 4.5 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit and then worked on equity. But right now, with the budget that we have, a 2.5 percent increase in the WPU is barely a break-even point for districts."
The Public Education Appropriation Subcommittee's funding proposal will be considered over the next three weeks by the Executive Appropriations Committee, which will make a final budget recommendation to the full Legislature near the end of the session.
Logan Republican Lyle Hillyard, Senate chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, said he "can never predict what's going to happen," but that lawmakers will try to stick to how each item gets prioritized.
"If you don't get the amount of money (on the proposal), what they'll do is try to skinny down the cows so you can get as many as you can in here, rather than starting at the bottom and start chopping off of the list," Hillyard said. "That's the tough choices we make in keeping a balanced budget."
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