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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Teacher Nancy Farnsworth helps student Sahra Dirye with math at Granite Park Junior High School in South Salt Lake on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — First things first.

Before the Utah Legislature can act on any new proposals on public education during the upcoming session, the entire body has a significant housekeeping chore: passing legislation that recodifies sections of the Utah code that pertain to education.

Recodification is akin to cleaning out a gargantuan hall closet. Legislative attorneys and staff have spent months discarding obsolete language in code, updating other portions and then reorganizing it.

It's kind of like purging your closet of skinny neckties, moth-eaten sweaters or jeans that no longer fit, and organizing what remains before others in the household (state lawmakers) add newly acquired items (laws).

Votes on the bills, a combined 1,200 pages at one count, will occur during the first week of the session, if not the first days.

Once the legislation is signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, expect a "dump" of education-related bills, as Charlie Evans, director of external relations for the Canyons School District, explained recently to the district's board of education.

One issue that received a lot of attention during the Legislature's interim session was school funding equalization.

While the state appropriates an equal sum to school districts and charter schools on a per-student basis through the weighted pupil unit, school districts also rely on local property taxes.

Local property tax revenues vary greatly by zip code. For instance, Park City School District has a relatively small student population and high property values, thus a significant tax property tax yield.

Young families tend to gravitate to areas with more affordable housing, lower property values and lower property tax yields. They are also some of the fastest-growing school districts, such as the Davis, Jordan, Alpine and Nebo districts. More students means the need for more funding.

Some, like Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, believe the state has a moral and constitutional obligation to every child so it needs to devise a means through tax policy to address the funding gap.

While there is general agreement among education constituents that more needs to be done to address the disparity, one challenge is bridging the gap without pitting one school district against another. Those sensitivities are exacerbated by the ongoing teacher shortage.

Under some proposals, some school districts like Canyons would receive less state money, "and the districts we compete with to hire teachers get more," said Evans.

The governor's budget recommendations call for a 5.6 percent increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit, with 4 percent for districts to use for educator pay increases, professional development, technology development and counseling.

The governor envisions the remaining 1.6 percent to assist children at risk of academic failure and spending $25 million on property tax equalization.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said its leadership "absolutely" supports equity and equalization.

"What we don’t support is redistribution of an inadequately sized pie," Matthews said.

"Unless equalization is paid for with new revenue and new revenue sources, it creates further inequity."

All school districts need the resources to provide a solid education for every child, Matthews said.

"Some areas simply don't have the capacity to be able to do that given the tax structure the way that it is. That's the state's responsibility to make sure our kids have these equitable opportunities. But unless it comes with a new revenue source like Our Schools Now, we don't support it," she said.

Our Schools Now is a ballot initiative that would raise taxes by more than $700 million to boost education funding.

At a recent breakfast hosted by United Way of Salt Lake, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Our Schools Now "has a great purpose, but it's taking the wrong approach" by increasing taxes.

Matthews said she hopes lawmakers focus on pressing problems such as the state's teacher shortage but keep an eye on future needs of the system, students and the education workforce.

The main reason teachers leave the profession is working conditions, she said.

"It's the ever-growing list of demands and accountabilities that are not matched with supports and resources. That's exacerbated by the large classes we have in Utah and the great needs our kids are coming to school with," she said.


Utah's public colleges and universities aren't seeking any significant policy changes but increased funding is needed to give college professors and employees pay raises, curb tuition increases and meet future workforce needs.

"We want to make sure our Utahns have the skills and the education they need to be full participants in the workforce," said Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler.

One bill of particular concern to the system of governance is a proposal by Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, that would take away the Utah State Board of Regents' authority to hire college and university presidents.

While regents would still have some involvement, the decision-making authority would shift to institutions' boards of trustees.

The legislation will be considered on the heels of the completion of the search for the 16th president.

On Thursday, the regents named Ruth V. Watkins, the U.'s senior vice president for academic affairs, its next president.

A search is underway for the next president of Utah Valley University and another will soon begin for president of Weber State University.

HB122 "would be very detrimental to the system of higher education. We will oppose that," Buhler said.

"I'm hopeful the legislation will look at the success we've had in presidential selection over many years. I think the process that ended (with Watkins' selection) shows it is a very good process. We had very good candidates," he said.

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The state's colleges and universities are also seeking state funding for new buildings and renovation projects. The board of regents building priorities include the University of Utah's Medical Education & Discovery/Rehabilitation Hospital, Utah State University's Biological and Natural Resources renovation, Weber State University's Lindquist Hall renovation, Dixie State University's Human Performance Center, Utah Valley University's new business school building, and Salt Lake Community College's Herriman campus general education building.