Superintendents in six districts that are piloting a block grant program asked the State Board of Education Friday to give them still more rope with which to experiment at the local level.

Their request was granted by the board, but only after one of its members tried to rein in the district efforts to gain freedom from board control on some of their spending.The districts are Salt Lake, Tooele, Carbon, Cache, Park City and Weber. They will receive portions of their total funding for the 1989-90 school year without state guidelines for spending it. The pilot program was initiated by Gov. Norm Bangerter during last winter's legislative session to allow the districts to determine how to spend some of their funds based on local needs.

Friday, superintendents of the districts asked the school board to take restrictions off career-ladder money so they can use it at their own discretion. They also asked that they be granted transportation money based on the present formulas, even though they may try alternative methods, such as four-day weeks or setting three-mile limits.

The superintendents also asked that the board consider requesting legislation that would allow them to shift money from capital outlay to operations funds.

The request that sparked concern from Board Member Margaret Nelson, however, was a proposal that the districts be required to submit only an annual report, dispensing with interim reports on the experimentation they intend to undertake.

Nelson responded, saying, "These (proposals) alarm me like crazy." The career ladder concept, which provides teacher incentives, is the cornerstone of Utah's education reform. To remove the requirements that it be spent based on a state formula could destroy the concept, she said.

Accountability by the local districts is essential to the process, she said.

Superintendent John Bennion, Salt Lake District, who spoke for the six districts, countered that the career-ladder program is only a means, not an end. The objective of the districts is to increase student learning and the state board could further the goal by "freeing up the means to achieve that end. You shouldn't think that all of the great ideas (about education) are embodied in career-ladders or any other category" of reform.

The block grant concept will work only if the districts are given leeway to try innovative methods of making education more pertinent and effective, Bennion said. The trust issue between the state board and local districts must be resolved or it could be the fatal flaw in the notion.

"Trust is the heart of the issue. How much latitude are you going to give us to explore? If none, then we are just playing around with the emperor's new clothes," Bennion said. The present system focuses on the process, he said. "Let's shift from the process to the results."

Districts are not likely to put education dollars into programs that will fail children or destroy teacher morale. "I have no desire to see my students fail," he said.

Several board members expressed discomfort with a shift to more local autonomy in education. They tried to conceptualize the board's role in such an atmosphere. Member John M.R. Covey suggested that the board should remain involved closely as the block grant pilot continues, to be certain the new direction in education fits into the board's long-term objectives.

"We want to trust, but don't know how," he said.

Covey and several other board members suggested it may be necessary for the board to redefine its role in state education and its relationship with local boards as education takes a new turn toward local control.

Nelson pointed out that some top-down mandates have been necessary to help some school districts improve their academic programs. She noted in particular the state's core curriculum program and the setting of minimum statewide graduation requirements.

"The role of the board is to exercise that kind of leadership that makes a difference," she said.

One of the superintendents' requests - that the six pilot districts receive additional money from grant programs, based on student numbers or through the usual request-for-proposal method - was turned down by the board.

The group approved the other requests, with Nelson dissenting.