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UEA says it's adequate but thinks legislature could have done better

To hear some legislators talk about it, the 2001 session could have ended with them unfurling a "We love education!" flag from a statehouse window.

But the Utah Education Association still can see anti-union sentiment spray-painted across the banner.

The state's largest teachers union still seems at odds with lawmakers despite their passing a record spending package of more than $2 billion for next fiscal year.

The UEA points to a bill that bars public employees, including teachers, from having donations to political action committees taken out of their paychecks. The union collects most its PAC money via payroll deductions. The bill sailed through both houses and is expected to be signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt.

Next came a bill to dock teachers two days' pay for every day spent on strike. Sen. Dave Gladwell, R-North Ogden, pulled the bill for further study, but it's likely to resurface next year.

And then there was talk of tuition tax credits and a forthcoming income tax break the union has opposed for years.

"Was it an adequate year and were there good things? Yes. But to characterize this as a banner year? We're going to have to analyze the numbers," UEA Executive Director Susan Kuziak said.

The teachers union isn't the only one feeling the angst.

Legislators feel let down by the union.

After working to come up with $120 million in extra money for schools last year, and after a task force came up with tens of millions of extra dollars to put toward education, the union staged a one-day walkout to protest the state's lack of a long-term funding plan.

Some legislators received letters penned by schoolchildren's wobbly hands repeating the UEA slogan, "Utah Students Deserve More."

"We do everything they want us to do, and they still walk out on the steps of the Capitol and say, 'The Legislature does not care about us teachers or public education.' And we do care, deeply," said Senate Majority Leader Steve Poulton, R-Holladay. "The citizens of the state have not elected us to take swipes at the union. We're trying to protect kids from a (powerful) union."

Tension between the UEA and legislators has affected others.

"There's an undercurrent of distrust and dissatisfaction that has to be resolved," said State Board of Education chairman Kim Burningham. "I'm just not sure we're communicating."

"It's unfortunate we were all impacted by some of those political messages the Legislature was trying to send," said Karen Derrick of the Utah School Boards Association.

Now, it appears all sides are trying to move on. But that road has been bumpy, too.

Legislators presented a $2 billion budget, with a 5.5 percent WPU increase (bringing its value from $2,006 to $2,116) and $10 million for two days' teacher training on the state's new accountability system. The base budget contains $147.3 million more than last year, according to the fiscal analysts' report.

The agreement followed two days of wrangling between the House and Senate and threats of a special legislative session.

"When you get above the shouting and the hard feelings, our top priority is children. Could we have done more? Yes," said Rep. Michael Styler, R-Delta, a schoolteacher but not a UEA member. He points to a tax cut that will take potential dollars out of the schools' coffers at a time when experts forecast an economic slowdown. "But it's always a balancing act."

Leavitt praised the record school-funding package.

"It was a very good year for education. Less than I had proposed, but you never get all that you want," Leavitt said, praising $9.9 million given to math and science teacher recruitment and continued commitment to the state's school accountability system.

"I feel both appreciative and optimistic the state was able to do as much as we are."

Yet some school leaders, including the UEA, wonder if legislators could have ponied up more in a year with some $650 million in extra dollars to spend.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Laing wishes the WPU increase had come in at 6 percent, as his office wanted.

"There is a lot of money in there, but given the fact we had a lot of money to deal with and the size of the obligation public education carries with it, it should be no surprise," he said. "There's still work to be done."

The UEA wishes the $10 million for training days were folded into the WPU to give them a 6 percent increase in the state's basic per-student funding formula. WPU money can be used in salary bargaining and could allow school districts autonomy over budgets.

School officials are leery of the idea of block grants new to this year's budget. That's because some items rolled into the grants used to get more money as the WPU increased. Not any more.

But UEA leaders say there are some bright spots in and outside the budget. They point out $5 million for class supplies, $24 million for textbooks, and $5.6 million in state assistance for school property tax increases.

And although they plan to take the state to court over the ban on payroll deductions for political contributions, they say they'll continue to try to work with lawmakers on future education funding.

"We've all been living on Rolaids," UEA Vice President Pat Rusk said. "We'll take our lumps. But in the end, we can all move on and do what's best."