With the sands running out of the 1991 Legislative hourglass, Utah teachers angrily protested what they perceive to be niggardly funding for education.
In an emergency meeting in Farmington Junior High School, several hundred teachers gathered Monday afternoon, some with strike sentiment running high.There were some calls for teachers to descend en masse on the Legislature before it adjourns Wednesday night at midnight, but no official action was taken.
The hastily called gathering was not official - it was piggybacked on a meeting of the Davis Education Association - but an attempt to gauge teacher feelings, said Utah Education Association President Lily Eskelsen. Saturday, the UEA board of directors and local representatives will meet.
Eskelsen flatly acknowledged the meeting was calculated to get the attention of the news media so legislators would know that teachers were unhappy. But, she said, the union will not tip its hand regarding any potential action until the time is right. Staging a display of force during the last two days of the session is not the only alternative left to the union, she said.
During the current session, education leaders have worked within the system, trying to avoid the tensions that arose in 1990 when teachers were painfully visible to legislators, staging a one-day walkout and a resounding Capitol Hill rally to push for education funding.
"They take us for slow learners," said Dave Van Langveldt, a Davis teacher. "Last year's statement apparently had no impact. The five-year plan begins with year zero . . . next year never comes."
"A threat is the only thing that is funded by the Legislature," said another teacher. Several agitated speakers suggested taking action next fall when school is supposed to open.
"I don't see how districts can do the planning they need to do," Eskelsen said. She referred to the Legislature's promise to pump more dollars into education during the summer if revenues come in above projections. But getting final figures in September would make a shambles of the negotiations process, she said.
She said Gov. Norm Bangerter had hinted he would veto a finance bill that doesn't sufficiently address education needs. "We need to hold him to that commitment," she said.
The Legislature has palmed off a $15 million "shell game" on educators, Eskelsen said.
"It's nothing more than a sham - a shell game," Eskelsen said. "They could sell this plan to Parker Brothers (the board game company). Except there would be no winners because no one could understand the rules."
Several legislators and education leaders said the UEA conclusion that public education will come up short in 1991 budget may be premature.
"A valiant effort is being made to find money for the $4.8 million class-size reduction program," said Rep. Richard J. Bradford, R-Sandy. The strategic planning effort also needs time to get off the ground, he said. Eleven action committees are just beginning their work.
House Speaker H. Craig Moody, R-Sandy, also asked for patience. UEA members "are not fully abreast of what is going on," he said. "Many of the issues are still being (discussed). Innuendos make bad policy."
He predicted the Legislature will be able to provide local districts with surplus figures as early as June 30 so negotiations can be completed by school time. Local districts, which must have their budgets completed by June 30, could do two budgets to anticipate possible additional funds, he said.
Bangerter would not comment on the teacher's dissatisfaction, but his chief of staff, Bud Scruggs, said, "We share in their frustration. We made some real headway last year. The money is just not there this year, and the Legislature just is not as focused on education as an issue.
Among the budget items the union is unhappy with are:
- A $7.5 million cut in block grant funds that districts use for a variety of education items, including salaries and benefits.
- A $2.7 million shift of money from a state fund for matching local taxes in districts that can't generate at least $20 per student per mill. The money was actually excess because of increases in weighted pupil units created by shifting budget categories at the beginning of the budget process. The districts will continue to receive the guarantee, but the $2.7 million was divided among a number of other budget items.
- A $4.8 million class size reduction plan that was passed by both houses. When discussion of funding began, legislators couldn't find money to finance it.
- A promise of a 5 percent salary package that actually will put little into teachers' pockets. The money will be reduced by 1.8 percent to cover shortfalls in the teacher retirement program due to actuarial errors, and regular lane changes and increments also must come from the 5 percent, leaving about 1 percent to 2 percent for salary increases. Late Friday, the Executive Appropriations Committee took further action that will reduce the salary package by .5 percent. The committee voted to continue to offer the 5 percent package to all state employees but funded it at only 4.5 percent.
- Failure of a strategic planning process to show any results as yet.