SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah officials prepare to disburse a record $74.5 million in investment earnings to Utah schools, legislation recently passed by the Utah Legislature moves oversight of the state schoolchildren's trust out from under the State School Board.
On Thursday, Natalie Gordon, a specialist in the School Children's Trust Section, told the Utah State Board of Education that this year's disbursement from the Permanent State School Fund will be 15 percent higher than last year.
"It's amazing," Gordon said.
The good news was somewhat overshadowed by the board's concerns over HB404, which passed unanimously without debate in the final hours of the recently concluded session of the Utah Legislature.
The bill created the Land Trusts Protection and Advocacy Office "to protect the interests of the current and future school and institutional trust lands beneficiaries," the legislation states.
HB404 is in the hands of Gov. Gary Herbert, who can sign it into law, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
Previously, the State School Board has appointed a school trust lands administrator that worked in the Office of the Utah State Board of Education. Under HB404, the position moves under the Utah State Treasurer.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said during committee debate that the change completes the reforms of the state trust lands oversight that started many years ago.
The change would give the Utah State Board of Education the "opportunity to focus on the control and supervision of education and not worry about these other assets that are intended to generate revenue. We'll provide the revenue. We'd like the State Board and the state office to govern and supervise our education system," Last said.
The bill, which affects the oversight of the Permanent State School Fund now totalling some $2.4 billion, had one committee meeting before the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee. It endorsed the bill by a 10-0 vote, despite the objections of State School Board Chairman Mark Huntsman, who asked "where is the evidence there should be a change?"
The state's Trust Lands Administration has generated more than $1.4 billion for Utah’s public schools since 1994. Utah’s permanent funds have grown from $84 million to some $2.4 billion. This Permanent School Fund is a perpetual endowment for public schools to benefit students.
Members of the elected State School Board take seriously the responsibility for overseeing those resources, Huntsman said. While the board by no means takes full credit for the success of the Permanent School Fund, it has played an important role in ensuring it is used well, he said.
Under HB404, the oversight shifts to a five-member Land Trusts Protection and Advocacy Committee, which will appoint an office director. A State Board of Education staff member who administers the School LAND Trust Program will serve on the advocacy committee.
"We do not see what's broken? We do not see the betterment that will come from this proposed bill," Huntsman said.
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, said the bill was more about personality conflicts between the State School Board and the former head of the School Children’s Trust Section, who resigned in August 2017, heading off the board's scheduled debate whether to remove him from his position.
A New Mexico state lands administrator was offered the job after a national search but later declined the offer. The position has been occupied by an interim director.
While the State School Board briefly discussed veto requests, board member Linda Hansen suggested sending a letter the governor expressing its concerns about HB404.3 comments on this story
The board ultimately decided not to seek a veto because the bill had passed by such large margins in each legislative house.
"I personally think we just leave 'bad enough' alone and let it play out," said State School Board member Carol Barlow Lear.
Board member Spencer Stokes agreed.
"When the governor looks at the number of votes that the bill got, I think he's going sign the bill into law," he said.
"There's no question we would be the only people asking for a veto."