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Educators like the money but not strings

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Public schools were in line to pull down money similar to last year's unprecedented budget increase as the clock wound down on the Legislature Wednesday night.

But teachers weren't smiling.

Education advocates were tripping over strings attached to the money that they said doesn't give school districts the flexibility they need to meet their most pressing needs.

As one advocate, who asked not to be named, put it: "Oh, we see your family's starving. Let us paint your house."

Public schools were to receive $441 million, according to House GOP leaders, with $100 million in a savings account in case the economy goes south. That's about $50 million shy of last year's banner year.

But it's not the totals that bug education leaders.

SB2 rolled a dozen bills — some of which had been voted down earlier in the session — into the nearly $2.5 billion Minimum School Program Act, which includes a 2.5 percent boost to the WPU (the state's basic school funding formula) and a $1,700 raise for teachers.

Also included in the bill: $2.9 million to provide up to $600 stipends for special educators' extra work; $6.9 million to let math and science teachers work year-round; $5 million to give $4,100 in extra salary to math, science and technology teachers; $3.5 million to give software to families to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten; and $100,000 to offset International Baccalaureate program costs.

The House and Senate battled over some of the bill's finer points but ended up revising how charter schools are funded, essentially replacing some state funding with school district money.

But Utah Education Association President Kim Campbell believes rolling so many ideas into one is bad public policy. She and other education advocates also say the money for all those programs instead should have bumped up the WPU.

"It would be unfair to say the compensation increases aren't significant and that out of the last two years some good things haven't happened," Campbell said. "But we are putting money into unproven pilot programs, for boutique bills, over things like class-size reduction or putting significant amounts in the weighted pupil unit so that districts can continue with some of the programs they have in the works ...."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. came to the legislative session wanting a 7 percent WPU boost. New revenue estimates then came in $340 million short — though there still was about a $776 million surplus — and lawmakers aimed for a 5 percent equivalent increase.

But Huntsman and GOP legislative leaders brokered a $25 million, one-time deal to bring that WPU equivalent to a 6 percent hike. The deal, in SB281, gave $5 million for $1,000 teacher signing bonuses; $19 million for merit pay, for which districts will write proposals; and $1 million for American Board master teacher certification (though a House-Senate fight over that was expected to continue late Wednesday).

"He certainly went to bat for this," Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said. "I think districts have been given some flexibility with the (performance pay) money, and it's important to understand the fortuitous legislative session education has had."

House budget chairman Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley, understands school bosses prefer flexibility. But he says he has received praise from teachers for the raise.

"If you ask education (bosses), they would say, 'Put everything in the WPU and let us make the determination (on spending),"' Bigelow said. "And if the public wanted that, that's what we would do."

Education officials disagree with that last commen. "It's going to be a tough year" to run a school district, said Steve Peterson, who lobbies for the Utah School Superintendents Association and Utah School Boards Association.

"We appreciate all they do, and they've got a very tough row to hoe up here," he said. "And we have to appreciate what we get, be thankful for it. But there's still the challenges ahead."

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