Utah's school districts have been staying away from the governor's block grant program in droves.

When the deadline for applications passed Monday, only three districts - Cache, Weber and Tooele - had put in a bid for the no-strings blocks of school funding. The State Office of Education was expected to vote Friday to extend the deadline by several weeks in hopes of generating more interest.A bill allowing for a test of the block grant system passed in the final hours of the 1988 session. The bill provides for five districts - hopefully a cross-section of large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural - to test the concept. If it were seen to be beneficial, other districts would be added.

The proposal had the support of Gov. Norm Bangerter, who made it part of a his legislative agenda for education, and of the education community, which had proposed it initially.

The system would allow districts more flexibility to put money where it is needed, instead of where the Legislature says it must go.

In an informal meeting with educators Thursday, the governor asked why the program had not received support from the districts and what could be done to make it more attractive.

Some educators said that the final form of the legislation is not what they had in mind at the beginning of the process and that districts are shying away because of what they see as onerous conditions since applied by the State Office of Education.

Representatives of the state office in turn said they are trying to meet the Legislature's mandate for accountability in the program by tying some strings to the "no-strings" budget blocks. The state office, for one thing, wants the participating districts to show some benefit of the program by proving improvement in student performance.

State Superintendent James Moss said he doesn't think the state requirements are onerous. The application form is simple and straightforward, consisting of a single page. The state board also has revised its criteria for participation.

"If you're asking us to try something new, you can't penalize us if it doesn't work," a school board member said. The boards also fear that if the program isn't successful, the legislature would revert to the categorical funding system in a short time, throwing their budgeting into chaos.

"What goes into the Legislature isn't always what comes out," said Winston Gleave, who represents the state's school boards. He urged, however, that districts serious about increasing local control take another look at block grants.

"There is no room here for non-risk takers," Bangerter agreed.

Superintendent Raymond Whittenburg of the Jordan District said the lack of enthusiasm at the local level amounts to a trust issue. He said while the local boards want more autonomy and freedom to work with their budgets in the context of local needs, they don't trust the state office to really leave them alone to make those decisions.

"They don't trust us and we don't trust them," Whittenburg said candidly. "There seems to be a lot of suspicion regarding what we want to do with block grants."

Whittenburg also said the timing is bad for district boards that are deeply involved in the springtime in setting budgets for the coming year. A deadline in the fall would be more attractive, he said.

Gleave also told the Deseret News some districts are a bit leery of having non-specific funds that might become bargaining chips in negotiations with district employees. Boards would be under pressure from any number of special- interest groups to put money into their areas of interest.

That wouldn't be all bad, he said. It would give district boards a little more leeway in talking with employees, many of whom have had little or no salary increase in recent years.

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The potential of having any number of special-interest groups banging at their doors asking for a slice of the budget pie, however, may scare off some local boards.

Bangerter suggested that having such issues raised at the local level would provide an opportunity to involve more community residents in the process - a plus, in his opinion.

Superintendent John Bennion of the Salt Lake District said block granting might be "very exciting" if the concept were taken a step further, with the state giving grants to the districts, which could in turn divide the money among local schools and allow decisions to be made at that level.

If after the extended application period, however, no more school districts have shown interest in the block grant program, its future may be in question.

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