SALT LAKE CITY — It will take more than $90 million to cover the cost of an additional 9,730 students expected to enroll in Utah schools next fall, legislative leaders were told Tuesday.
The projected 1.5 percent increase in enrollment growth comes as schools are already dealing with nearly 3,400 more students showing up than the 2015 Legislature funded.
That alone will cost schools up to an extra $17 million this budget year, members of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee were told in a report from staff that said next year's enrollment is projected to reach nearly 644,000 students.
"Growth is slowing from what we can tell, but we’re still growing," said Ben Leishman, a legislative fiscal analyst for public education.
Leishman said enrollment growth peaked in 2006, at 3.1 percent, but the number of students continues to climb.
The price tag for next year's enrollment increase would actually be more than $97 million if the state uses the traditional way of calculating funding for students attending charter schools, where most of the growth is occurring, he said.
The legislative leaders who serve on the committee questioned the amount of money it will take to pay for enrollment growth in the budget year that begins July 1, 2016. Last year, it took about $55 million to cover increased enrollment.
The likely reason, Leishman said, is the undercount of students discovered in the Oct. 1 annual head count made public last week. The current year budget anticipated just under 8,000 more students but 11,713 showed up.
The difference between the estimate and the actual enrollment, considerably larger than in recent years, has had to be factored into the new projections, Leishman told the committee.
His report said the impact on the budget is still being analyzed. However, Scott Jones, associate superintendent of the Utah State Office of Education, said in an interview the shortfall can be absorbed this budget year with surplus funds.
But funding growth in the next budget year is the state Board of Education's top priority, the board's vice chairman, Dave Thomas, told a reporter. Before the undercount, the board estimated enrollment growth would add up to $77 million.
"I think it will continue to always be funded," Thomas said of enrollment growth. "The question is: What's left?"
He said other priorities in the budget are expected to be approved by the board next month, including a new technology initiative with a $100 million price tag and $50 million in ongoing funding.
Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said during the meeting there needs to be more discussion in the Legislature about how enrollment growth is funded to account for fixed costs that aren't directly affected.
"I fully intend to fund it," Hillyard said in an interview, noting public education needs are adding up quickly. "But we have to find a different way of looking at it."
Lawmakers learned last month there is a $109 million surplus left over from the budget year that ended June 30, the result of larger than expected state income tax revenues earmarked for education.
New revenue estimates for the upcoming budget year are expected next month.