The costly $15 million shell game lawmakers are playing with Utah's educational system could keep some school districts from opening their doors in September, according to Utah Education Association president Lily Eskelsen.
While she stopped short Saturday of threatening another teacher walk-out, Eskelsen termed a Republican caucus agreement "numbingly stupid," and a slap in the face for teachers.The plan calls for a 5 percent pay increase for public employees, and in a unique two-tier system, has earmarked $14 million for educational programs as part of a contingency budget, meaning educators won't know until September - when actual revenues come in - if the money will actually be available.
UEA officials believe that another $1 million in funds now earmarked for educational programs will be shifted into the pay increase and class-size reduction appropriations.
"We've left all options open," Eskelsen said of teachers' plans for expressing displeasure in the waning days of the 1991 legislative session. "It's our major concern right now that we're talking about not being able to open school in the fall. Whatever actions teachers decide to take, they will be reasonable, and they will be made with the best interest of students in mind.
"I see this appropriations bill as an insult to teachers, an insult to how hard we've worked this year."
Eskelsen said it appears that the proposed education budget funds a 5 percent teacher salary and benefit package, while taking care of the state's most pressing education problem, reducing class size in the elementary grades. But that appearance is a "grand illusion," because lawmakers propose shifting money already allocated for other educational programs.
While the total salary package is 5 percent, that figure should be considered minus 1.8 percent, which will be used to fund shortfalls in public employees' retirement plan, Eskelsen said.
"We count $15 million in what we call shifted, cut or unfunded budgets. All that is contingent on whether or not there is a surplus, which we won't know until September."
She termed the budget plan, which the Republican majority in the Utah House and Senate announced Friday, as "so tenative it's like trying to nail Jello to a tree." The numbers are so slippery some districts won't be able to open school next fall. District administrators won't be able to negotiate with teachers or plan staffing levels without budget numbers.
The financial shenanigans are occurring while lawmakers are sitting on a $55 million nest egg, the state's rainy-day fund, Eskelsen said. By using less-conservative revenue projections, educational priorities - such as Gov. Norm Bangerter's six-year plan to reduce class size - could be funded.
Instead of spending money to increase the state subsidy for poorer school districts, the proposal recommends reducing that fund and putting it into the salary pot, Eskelsen said.
Eskelsen said the public and teachers have lost faith in the revenue projection process, because of traditional year-end surpluses in the past.
She said the teachers' union will work hard to convince lawmakers to scrape the proposal and draft a new one, all within the last three days of the session.