The 2019 legislative session starts its 45-day session on Jan 28th. With Utah’s robust economy and Governor Gary Herbert’s budget proposing a 4% increase in the WPU, education funding will be watched by school districts throughout the state. Carolyn Murray has this update:
Last March, the Our Schools Now advocacy group agreed to withdraw a $700 million-dollar education funding ballot initiative in exchange for a $350 million-dollar property, income and gas tax adjustment. However, voters didn’t approve the gas tax proposition in November. With the legislature convening later this month, Park City School District Business Administrator, Todd Hauber said it’s shaping up to be a good year for education funding despite the failure of the gas tax increase.
“With the budget release of the governor in talking about additional revenues available to public education, people are pretty positive and upbeat. This will be a good year as we look to fund public education. But the other elements for funding for education were put in place last session so they continue to be in place for this session and it will then fall to the legislature this session to determine how those funds get used.”
With this year’s budget surplus Hauber doesn’t expect as many obstacles to funding education but said politics will drive some of the decisions.
“I think the other challenges will probably come from tax strategy and tax profile so event he governor has talked about a tax decrease because the economic revenues are coming in so strong.”
Hauber said $106 million-dollars in property and income tax revenue was set aside last year for education. This year, the legislature needs to make laws to outline how funds are to be spent by the school districts.
“The way the moneys flow right now are so unorganized in the sense that if I decide to advise the board to use the money in one fashion or another and then the legislature comes and says oh no, you have to use this money this other way, we’re kind of in a hard spot. We’ve committed ourselves. They need to define it so we’re not walking around on eggshells wondering, can I do this, how long can I do this, am I going to have to stop doing this? You know, it will just be better for the system as a whole to have it settled so we can move forward.”
Hauber suspects equalization legislation will be back this session, but will look different this year - targeting different student demographics.
"More funding-and you’ll see this in the Governor’s budget-more funding for students who are at risk. Meaning, those who are in either poverty situations or other situations that hinder their academic progress.
The state of Utah funds public and charter schools through the Weighted Pupil Unit. This school year, that amount is $33-hundred per student. The Governor’s budget is asking for an increase of 4-percent to the WPU this year along with an additional 2-percent increase for specialized programs.
Hauber believes increased funding will dominate the discussion this year. Lawmakers still have work left over from last year to address special education.
“There are dollars there. The idea that the transportation or the gas tax didn’t make it through the public vote, there’s going to be a lot of talk about how we finance public education now. Beyond that, there is still the recodification of the education code. I think special education is one of the areas that will get attention through that clean-up process.”
The Governor’s budget allocates about $90-million to address school safety for both facilities and systems. Hauber doesn’t know what those policies will look like but said it will be part of the legislative debate this year.
As reported, the Park City School District eliminated charging academic fees in order to make education access more equal. Hauber said the legislature has a concern that school fees, especially fee waiver practices, haven’t been properly regulated, but he said the rest of the state will not be emulating Park City in eliminating academic fees in secondary schools.
“The solution at the state level is to put better regulation in place and to make sure that the fee waiver policies at the local school levels are fully understood and fully in practice so students aren’t being denied access to education.”
Hauber said most public school districts in the western part of the U.S. charge school fees. The State Board of Education wants the legislature to put a cap on individual and cumulative school fees and to do a better job with fee waiver processes.
The Utah legislature begins January 28th and ends March 14th.