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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Gov. Gary R. Herbert speaks with media at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers approved nearly $240 million in new money for public education Tuesday, including $68 million for growth and a 4 percent increase in the value of the weighted pupil unit.

The Utah Senate gave final approval to SB1, which also funds a number of initiatives the Utah State Board of Education identified as priorities, including doing away with SAGE testing in high school and shifting to ACT-brand exams, and $5 million in ongoing money for teacher supplies.

"As you know, we all work on this together. I think this is really a budget that reflects the body of the Senate. It backs up the words we always say, that public education is by far our most important asset (for) our children and is our top priority," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, co-chairman of the Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

While increases to the value of the weighted pupil unit fund are used for pay raises for teachers, increases in compensation are left to the discretion of local school boards, he said.

Hillyard credited Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for setting high expectations in his budget recommendations, calling for a 4 percent increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit.

As the session got underway, "we felt within the committee we were really stretching it to get to 3 (percent)," Hillyard said. After revenue projections were released later in the general session, the committee felt comfortable matching Herbert's recommendation, he said.

The budget also addresses a thorny issue that came before the Utah State Board of Education prior to the session — increasing teacher licensing fees and the cost of background checks. The costs are paid by teachers themselves. The board voted to increase fees but directed staff to hold off on implementing the higher schedule.

Lawmakers agreed to spend $2.6 million to pay the costs instead, a move they hope will help stem Utah's high rates of teacher turnover.

"It seems counterproductive to have teachers pay to work," Hillyard said.

Herbert, who met with reporters Tuesday, noted that 80 percent of new money that came into state coffers would go to education.

"That is encouraging to me," he said.

The passage of the state education budget comes as backers of a proposed citizen initiative, Our Schools Now, prepare to launch a signature-gathering effort. The effort seeks a voter-approved, seven-eighths of 1 percent increase to the state income tax rate, which would raise $750 million for schools.

"I think they believe passionately in what they are doing and (that) they should move ahead. I think it is motivating us all" to find funding solutions for education, Herbert said.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said members of the state's largest teacher union "are pleased and grateful that the Legislature focused so much attention on public education. With the beginning amount of a 3 percent increase on the WPU and moving to a 4 (percent increase), it was considerable."

"Shifting the funding for teacher supplies to ongoing funds is something we are so happy to see. That is such a burden on teachers," Matthews said.

A spokeswoman for the Utah State Board of Education said members of the elected body were pleased to see a state education budget that reflects its funding priorities and ongoing discussions with state lawmakers.

"Legislators demonstrated their commitment to public education by dedicating additional revenue to the WPU and fully funding enrollment growth — money that will provide districts and charter (schools) with flexibility as they make decisions. We also appreciate the funding for smaller but critical items like educator licensing fees, Regional Service Centers, teacher supplies, and the SafeUT app. These appropriations show a continuing commitment to teachers and students," spokeswoman Emilie Wheeler said.

"Perhaps most importantly, we appreciate our constitutional partnership with the Legislature during an especially collaborative session and value the trust extended to us as we have worked together toward educational excellence," Wheeler said.

State lawmakers also gave final passage to a bill that funds compensation for state employees, including faculty and staff of the state's colleges and universities. The budget calls for 2 percent increases. The state also funds their retirements and benefits.

Other budget highlights for higher education include $3.5 million for enrollment growth, $7.2 million to mitigate increases in tuition, and $8 million for the Regents Scholarship.

The state budget also includes funding to help with costs of three projects on college campuses: $14 million for Weber State University's social science building; $8 million toward Dixie State University's Human Performance Center; and $5 million toward the University of Utah's Medical Education & Discovery/Rehabilitation Hospital.

Legislative intent language suggests that $20 million in ongoing funding could be dedicated to the medical school project by 2020.