SALT LAKE CITY — Both chambers of the Utah Legislature unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would provide additional funding to public schools, while education advocates are still lobbying for more before the session adjourns at midnight Thursday.
"Let me use the old cliche," Rep. Mel Brown said before the House vote. "It's a good bill, vote for it."
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, sponsored SB2, which increases the weighted pupil unit (WPU) value by 1.15 percent — accounting for approximately $24 million — as part of a $70 million supplement to the $3.5 billion public education base budget signed by the governor in February. Hillyard estimated that after the legislative session is completed, the education budget will receive between $110 million and $115 million in additional funding.
Much of the WPU increase will cover costs associated with employee retirement, Hillyard said, but the value increase is larger than what was recommended by Gov. Gary Herbert.
"We're paying part of the price but doing it in a very reasonable way to make sure our retirement remains solvent," Hillyard said. "We think this amount will cover the fixed retirement costs that public education has."
Utah State Deputy Superintendent Martell Menlove said the bill addresses most of the priorities set forth by the State Board of Education. He said the bill does not provide as much latitude for salary increases as they may have liked, but does respond to increased costs.
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, spoke in support of the bill before the House, saying it addresses the needs of Utah public education.
"We can look and we can say we've truly funded growth," he said.
Not included in that budget, however, is $800,000 for an expansion of the dual-immersion foreign language program, which begins in first grade and teaches students for half the day in English and half the day in another language.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, issued a statement Monday night expressing his concern that the Executive Appropriations Committee had failed to prioritize the planned expansion of the program.
"A thousand first-grade students will be denied a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in Utah's dual-immersion program and lose the great opportunity of a bilingual education," Stephenson said in the statement.
The dual-immersion expansion was listed as 15th in the Education Appropriation committee's list of priorities. Hillyard said funding simply ran out after the ninth item on the list.
"There's a lot of things on that list that I'm sorry we didn't have the money," he said.
Hillyard said there is still $2.5 million of ongoing funding as well as $2.5 million of one-time money available that could potentially be used for remaining budget priorities not addressed in SB2 such as the dual-immersion program. He said the the terms of SB2 make the Legislature's commitment to education very clear.
"We're going to spend more money in public education and higher education than requested by the governor," he said.
The bill passed 28-0 in the Senate and 75-0 in the House.