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PUBLIC-SCHOOL FUNDING TO RISE 11.9% - STATE BUDGET’S BIGGEST BOOST

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The Utah Legislature adopted a $1.7 billion plan for the state's public schools, including $30 million in new money to reduce class sizes.

State and local funding will increase 11.9 percent over the current fiscal year, the most generous increase in the state budget. The budget included a 4 percent increase in the value of the weighted pupil unit, setting it at $1,739."When you take those items in total, it represents a really positive year when the Legislature indicated great interest and support for public education," said State Superintendent Scott Bean.

Rep. Kelly Atkinson, D-West Jordan, said the crowning glory of the session was increasing Utah's per pupil spending, which has been the lowest in the country the past few years.

"This Minimum School Program Act will finally raise our teachers from the bottom of the cellar. We'll be second from the bottom, but not the bottom," Atkinson said.

The Utah School Bond Guarantee Act passed by the Legislature authorizes the state to guarantee school district bonds, which would give all districts a AAA bond rating. Currently only the Salt Lake School District has a AAA rating, the highest given by Moody's. The legislation requires a constitutional amendment, which will be decided by statewide vote in November.

The education budget adopted Wednesday also provides $5.2 million to assist 52 schools that serve high concentrations of at-risk students. When the program was launched last year, 40 schools received funding.

Rep. Shirley Jensen, R-Salt Lake, said early reports indicate the program has been highly successful. "We feel happy it was fully funded because many worthwhile programs did not get funded," said Jensen, who carried the legislation for the program.

The budget provides $3 million to help reimburse teachers for out-of-pocket expenditures for their classrooms, roughly $135 each. That figure could change due to the increased numbers of teachers that could be hired under the enhanced class-size reduction program.

The class-size reduction bill will enable districts to hire more teachers and aides and obtain technology to reduce class size. Districts that experience 5 percent enrollment growth or the addition of 700 students from the previous year may use 20 percent of their appropriation to construct classrooms.

"This is going to have more of an impact on public education than anything we've done for years. There is a potential to hire 1,000 teachers, although the money doesn't just have to be spent on teachers, it could be spent on teachers' aides and technology as well," said Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton.

The only sore point aired Wednesday was a decision not to fund $285,000 to bolster salaries and enhance benefits for teachers in Wendover, Utah, in an attempt to compete with their better-paid counterparts who teach on the Nevada side of town. Fiscal analysts feared the appropriation would create a salary inequity among other teachers in the state.

"Regardless, we'll make sure students on the Utah side out there have a positive education experience," said Bean.

Not all the education bills handled during the session were financial. Students who frequently or flagrantly swear - a habit educators say poisons the learning environment - are subject to expulsion from school.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Education highlights

Provided a 4 percent increase in the value of the weighted pupil unit.

Appropriated $52 million for class-size reduction.

EDNET installation will be completed at all high schools, part of $15 million to be spent on technology in the schools.