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Inequality of schools raises flags

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Utah may not be sued for not giving public school children a "basic" education, but it could be vulnerable for court challenges claiming school buildings and facilities are "unequal" from one district to another, legislative leaders were told.

Utah is like most other states in requiring and funding a "basic" public education, a study by the state's legislative fiscal analyst shows. Such funding comes in the form of the weighted pupil unit, the state's per-student funding formula.

Because Utah is doing about what other states are, it's unlikely it could successfully be sued for providing an inadequate education by a disgruntled student or parent, said Michael Kjar of the Legislative Fiscal Analysts Office.

But the state could be vulnerable on another front: equal treatment in providing school facilities, Kjar told members of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

That's because the state doesn't provide much funding for school buildings. Those funds mostly come out of school district property tax levies. And since those funds aren't "equalized' by the state, some districts have better school buildings than other districts.

And therein lies a potential problem.

"There's always a potential lawsuit there because of a substantial inequality" in money for buildings, Davis School District Superintendent Darrell White said Wednesday.

Davis District is a bedroom community. Its tax base consists mostly of homes instead of booming commercial areas such as downtown Salt Lake City. That makes it one of the state's 10 "tax-poor" districts, White said.

The district therefore relies on building money the state offers to poorer districts. The Legislature added $10 million to that pot last March. But there's a problem this year.

The state foresees a revenue shortfall in the neighborhood of $60 million. Gov. Mike Leavitt has asked state agencies to hold back 4 percent of their spending, including the building money, to prepare for the worst, White said. And that stands to devastate districts like his, particularly as the state braces for another 100,000 schoolchildren by 2010.

"I see it as a significant problem," White said.

Several legislative leaders quickly pointed out that in other states where federal or state judges have ordered the state or school districts to help out with school buildings, those buildings were in disrepair.

"Those were schools that had rats in the corners coming out of holes in the walls. Our schools are not in that kind of shape," said House Majority Whip Dave Ure, R-Kamas.

True, Kjar said. But the question of different levels of funding for school buildings must be considered.

"We are at risk on lawsuits on facilities. It's a question of equal financing," Kjar said.

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, said the state does not take into account a district's capital facilities bonding debt when it sends out emergency building funds.

"Some districts have a whole lot of debt, and so are doing what they can to build and maintain adequate buildings," said Hickman, a banker. "But others have very little debt."

And if the state is giving money to districts for emergency facility needs when that district isn't bonding to help itself, that could be a problem.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, noted that when the Utah Constitution's public education article was amended in the 1980s, the word "uniform," as it applies to a general public education, was removed. Without that word, or a similar definition, courts could have leeway to interpret unequal education in inappropriate ways, said Valentine, an attorney.

In any case, Kjar's study showed that while Utah doesn't spend the most money per pupil in the nation — in fact, it is near the bottom with that measurement — it does a good job with the financial and testing tools it does have.

For example, 42 percent of the funds allocated for public education goes to teachers' pay. The national average is 37.7 percent.

Utah state government provides 66.9 percent of the total public education funding. That's higher than any other Western state, where the average is closer to 60 percent.

Sixty-six percent of all public education monies in Utah go for direct instruction. That, also, is higher than any other Western state.

It doesn't appear Utah schools are top-heavy with administrators. Fifty-five percent of total staff are teachers in Utah. Only 48 percent of Wyoming school staff are teachers, Kjar's study found.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; jtcook@desnews.com