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Utah Legislature: School programs at risk as budget decisions draw near

SANDY — Decked out in his white chef's garb, Kameron Hadlock admits he is a bit worried as he drizzles lemon cream cheese icing onto a flaky pastry.

It's not his cooking creation that concerns the Jordan High School senior, who is in his second year of the school's ProStart culinary arts program. It's what could happen to the program amid statewide budget cuts.

"This helps us prepare for college," Hadlock said, adding he wants to be a chef and own a restaurant chain one day.

ProStart is just one of myriad education programs on the chopping block as lawmakers draw closer to making tough budget decisions.

The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee plans to vote today on its recommendation for the education budget beginning July 1. From there, lawmakers are waiting for revenue figures to come in so they can better calculate budgets and make choices, possibly by mid-February.

ProStart administrators are scheduled to testify today before the committee vote.

Designed to prepare students for careers in the restaurant or hospitality industry, ProStart was developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

"It gives students a feel for what it would be like to work in the industry," said Shauna Young, family and consumer science teacher and ProStart instructor at Jordan High.

ProStart also aids students in deciding whether to pursue culinary arts on a higher level. It weeds out students before they enter college and could waste time and money on a degree they aren't cut out for. Or it can open a student's eyes to an undiscovered talent.

"It's a whole new field I would have never tried," said Sarah Brazell, a senior and second-year ProStart student at Jordan High. She now wants to earn a bachelor's degree in culinary arts and work as a wedding cake decorator.

Many ProStart students are taking concurrent enrollment classes for college credit. Those who complete two years of classes, do a 400-hour internship and pass two exit tests, automatically receive a $2,000 scholarship to any hospitality or food service program nationwide.

The education committee spent the last two weeks hearing testimony from numerous program leaders, everything from science outreach programs to the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship.

In January the committee moved forward the required prioritization for 4 percent cuts across the board for the current school year.

And legislators are looking at a 5 percent cut in the new budget. Lawmakers could ax specific programs or skim from all programs.

Committee members are tight-lipped about the recommendations.

"I think we'll be fine. We're going to do what it takes," said Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, co-chairwoman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

State Superintendent Larry Shumway and other education leaders don't want to see any programs cut and are hoping lawmakers will dip into reserve funds until the economy improves.

Shumway compares education budget cuts to a garden. If you are in a drought, do you water only the potatoes, zucchini and peas and let the corn and carrots die? Or do you water all the vegetables as much as you can and hope you'll get water soon? And what about the water set aside in a tank?

"We want to keep all our plants alive," Shumway said. "We have programs that are helping kids. I haven't heard any presentation where I thought the program wasn't serving kids."

With competing programs and dueling budget proposals, it's anyone's best guess what the committee will decide.

"It's all up for discussion right now. It's hard to tell. Monday will be an interesting meeting," said Todd Hauber, State Office of Education associate superintendent for business services.

The State Board of Education proposes to approve the new education budget at the current figure of $2.9 billion and cover a predicted 11,000 new students within that budget. That would require a reduction in the value of the weighted pupil unit — the amount the state spends per student — and an overall percentage reduction in programs, but not axing any particular program.

The board wants the governor and the Legislature take $100 million from the state Rainy Day Fund and $100 million from set-aside education funds, as well as find $93 million in one-time funds from other sources to keep the education budget flat.

The governor's proposal is similar to the board's, only it reduces the weighted pupil unit more and doesn't reduce programs incrementally.