SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers "injected" record funding into education during the 2018 Legislature, which ended Thursday, and Gov. Gary Herbert said it was cause for educators to "clap" for joy.
But many in the education family were on pins and needles late Thursday night as the House of Representatives debated whether to eliminate the elected Utah State Board of Education.
After an intense floor debate over SJR16, which called for a constitutional amendment allowing Utah voters to decide whether to eliminate the board, the House voted 18-52 to defeat the proposal.
Under a substituted version of the resolution, the governor would appoint a state school board. The board would select a superintendent, which would require the OK of the governor and confirmation of the Senate.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said the resolution was a historic opportunity to change the governance of public education.
"This would place responsibility squarely with the governor where most people think it rests," Nelson said.
But Rep. Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said a constitutional revision of this magnitude deserves an interim session for study "and more."
If you the love the U.S. Department of Education, "do this," Christensen says, referring to SJR16.
This is an "abdication of our constitutional duty," he said.
The resolution was supported by Gov. Gary Herbert, who earlier in the week said that "the governor needs to have more ability to, in fact, shape public education policy. The governor is limited by the constitution in what we can do.”
But House members voted to stick with the nonpartisan elected school board, which was hotly debated but lost by a lopsided margin after passing the Senate by a 22-6 vote earlier in the week.
Otherwise, the just-concluded session of the Utah Legislature was a banner year for public schools, Herbert said.
"The teachers and education folks ought to be clapping their hands for joy," Herbert said on the Legislature's final day.
They were, indeed. A letter to the Utah Legislature read from the dias in the House and Senate from Utah’s public education community thanked lawmakers for “their investment in public education this year. We also offer our thanks to Utah’s taxpayers for their support and pledge to use their resources we have so generously been given to better prepare students for their futures.”
The letter, signed by the Utah State Board of Education, Utah State Charter School Board, local school boards, associations for principals, superintendents, teacher unions and Utah PTA.
“We also appreciated your focus on teacher recruitment and retention, equalization and recognition the diverse needs of student mental health,” the letter says.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said the session presented a unique opportunity to increase education funding yet cut personal and corporate income tax rates.
"We are injecting record funding into public education, and at the same time we are delivering tax relief to Utahns," Hughes said.
Lawmakers appropriated $36 million for enrollment growth. Utah's public school enrollment is estimated to exceed 660,000 students this fall, an increase of some 7,681 students from the previous year.
Schools with lower property tax yields due to lower property values or lesser amounts of taxable lands should benefit from a school funding equalization measure.
SB2 provided a 4 percent increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit, 2.5 percent for ongoing expenses, and 1.5 percent for "flexible allocation." The weighted pupil unit is the basic building block of public education funding.
Lawmakers appropriated $9 million for at-risk students and expanded the definition to include children experiencing homelessness.
Supplemental pay will be extended to special education teachers in an effort to reduce shortages of special educators and to acknowledge the additional schooling and paperwork the specialty requires.
Asked to describe the Legislature’s efforts for public education, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the Senate appropriations chairman, said simply, “This has been a major lift.”
Lawmakers fully funded growth and numerous other education initiatives ranging from grant programs to hire elementary school counselors to funding the development of curriculum to help address Utah's nation leading rate of deaths from opioid overdoses.
The lion's share of some $500 million in new revenue went to education and funding overall increased more than 6 percent over the previous year.
"I actually heard it was close to 7 (percent)," said Majority Whip Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.
With the passage of tax reform, "it will be even more," Stevenson said.
State lawmakers also passed legislation that calls for the harms of pornography and refusal skills to be added to the state's sex education curriculum, which reached final passage Thursday.
One measure intended to enhance school safety, a change to state fire code, will allow local schools to decide whether they want to install locks that barricade classroom doors.
The state's public colleges and universities also received about a 6 percent increase in funding, which included a 2.5 percent increase in compensation and funding growth of the system.
"It's been a good year. The Legislature prioritized higher education funding this year, funding our top priorities and budget requests," said David Buhler, Utah's commissioner of higher education.
In other higher education issues, Utah’s governor will be able to remove members of the Utah State Board of Regents, the Utah System of Technical Colleges, as well as college and university boards of trustees under legislation approved by lawmakers.
Governors appoint regents, UTech trustees and college trustees, which are then confirmed by the Utah Senate.
HB300, sponsored by Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, also requires the Utah Senate to confirm the student member of the Utah State Board of Regents.
The legislation also addresses colleges’ and universities’ use of tuition waivers, which has grown considerably in the past three years.
According to a brief by the Legislative Fiscal Analyst, total tuition waived between 2014 and 2017 increased from $81 million to $138.1 million.
The legislation encourages the Utah State Board of Regents to create policies that direct colleges and universities to “assess and report whether the institution of higher education’s use of tuition waivers supports the goals established by the board.”
Higher education officials say tuition waivers help keep college affordable and encourage students from out of state to attend college in Utah. However, costs of not collecting full tuition have to be covered elsewhere, generally through cost-cutting measures or tuition increases.
In other action, the Utah Legislature created scholarships for eligible students enrolled in “high-demand programs” at state technical colleges.
The legislative appropriation of $800,000 will fund scholarships to cover the costs of tuition, program fees and textbooks.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy, Amy Joi O'Donoghue