Educators have some ideas for Gov. Norm Bangerter about how he might want to spend part of the state's anticipated $220 million-$250 million surplus.
Higher education has put in its plea for some of the money to deal with a backlog of instructional equipment needs, improve library holdings, bring maintenance up to date and, perhaps, speed up a library building program.And public education suggested some of the surplus could be used to advance restructuring of school programs or even to help districts meet the increasing costs of government-imposed environmental programs. The suggestions came during a full day of meetings last week.
After the morning meeting, which was closed to reporters, Higher Education Commissioner Rolfe Kerr said that while higher education is "clearly only one of many agencies with financial needs," he hopes the surplus will be at least partially applied to needs of the nine institutions of higher learning.
While a hefty surplus suggests "an appropriate adjustment in taxes," he said, "we hope the pendulum will not be allowed to swing too far."
If a stronger economy continues to generate more tax money, Kerr said he would like to see the issue of higher education salaries addressed. The one-time money, however, would be useful for such things as construction of libraries badly needed at Salt Lake and Utah Valley community colleges. The libraries now are on a state buildings list that will delay their construction for some time.
At his noon meeting with the Utah School Superintendents Association, the governor did not commit to any educational windfalls from the surplus. He said resolving retirement issues will be the main concern during the upcoming special session, which could take $50 million of the surplus, although "we hope to be able to resolve them with $30 million."
Medicare problems related to a suit against the state also must be resolved, the governor said.
A "small tax cut" also appears to be in order to "prevent another flare-up" of tax protests, he said.
Bangerter said he hopes to continue his block grant philosophy, which is being piloted in six districts. The program allows the participating districts some leeway in spending money that was formerly earmarked for particular categories.
However, superintendents in the pilot districts differed in their assessments of the block grant program. Superintendent Michael Jacobson of Tooele said studies of potential uses of the money in his district indicated that "we could have implemented any of our ideas without the block grant. I am not sure of the value of block grants without more money or unless federal regulations can be loosened."
The district, which involved a wide representation of the community in its plans for block grant spending, considered a four-day week, which would have cut transportation costs significantly. But the idea was not popular, Jacobson said.
Millard Superintendent Kenneth Topham also told the governor there are growing concerns about financial equity among large and small school districts in the state. The State Office of Education is preparing to launch a two-year study of the state's school funding formulas.
The superintendents complained to the governor that state-assessed properties in the state, including IPP in Millard County and others, are being granted tax breaks to the detriment of education. South Summit District lost $100 million in revenues this year because of assessment reductions. The energy industry, in particular, seems to be benefiting from reduced assessments that are hurting the school districts that benefit from their tax payments.