SALT LAKE CITY — The just-concluded legislative session left some unfinished business in public education. Here's a look at what's next in terms of school safety, State School Board elections and letter grades for schools.
In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17 people in 2018, Utah students took to the streets calling for safer schools and gun violence protection.
And while task forces and commissions were assembled to develop policy goals, the final outcome was far removed from the ambitious consensus legislation recommended by community leaders and experts.
Nevertheless, a lawmaker pushing a school safety bill calls it a starting point.
“I feel like the bill is a good step forward and there are still things that need to be done,” Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said.
Legislation was developed recommending a significant investment, some $100 million for "school hardening" measures such as video surveillance systems, fire doors or vestibule doors that limit entry to schools to one door. The funding also would be used to hire more school employees such as school counselors, social workers, psychologists, school resource officers and nurses.
Ward's bill would have created threat-assessment teams to identify, evaluate and address threats or potential threats to school security.
Six versions of HB120 emerged as Ward attempted to work with advocates, lawmakers and members of the public who raised concerns about costs, perceived unfunded mandates and concerns about student privacy.
The much-diluted bill does three things: It directs the Utah State Board of Education to develop policies for student safety and support. It directs the state Department of Public Safety to hire a public safety liaison and it directs the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to employ a school-based mental health specialist. The bill received about $780,000 in funding.
Matching grant funding for school personnel came through a different vehicle, HB373, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. The $17.2 million appropriated along with the bill will also be used to support the SafeUT Crisis Line and to contract for community mental health services.
The action pleased Utah's to education official.
"That combination of looking at school safety and mental health was one of our top priorities," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson. The funding attached to both bills will enable the State School Board to "accomplish some of our goals."
There was no money appropriated for school hardening, which critics said would create inequity for schools that have already paid for improvements. Others argued that school districts can pay for building improvements through bonding programs. Charter schools don't have that option.
In January, the State School Board released its new, redesigned school report cards - sans letter grades. But the failure of a bill to permanently drop a requirement for letter grades leaves the policy in question.
During the 2018 legislative session, school accountability legislation defined scores for A-F letter grading scales but allowed the State School Board to suspend assigning school grades for one year.
This year, Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, introduced HB198, to remove the requirement of assigning the much-maligned school grades from the school accountability report.
The bill sailed through the House Education Committee and the Utah House of Representatives.
"I think we can file that under ‘seemed like a good idea at the time,' " said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, during House debate.
But when the bill surfaced in the Senate in the waning hours of the legislative session, it was not considered.
The new state report card has new indicators such as how well high schools prepare students for college or other postsecondary education; progress of English language learners; and academic growth of a school’s lowest-performing students.
Instead of grades, schools are rated as exemplary, commendable, typical, developing or those with critical needs.
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said the demise of the bill "was one of the biggest disappointments of the session. HB198 had overwhelming support in the House but it didn't even get a (committee) hearing in the Senate. Why is that?"
State School Board
Even as the Utah Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of partisan State School Board elections, lawmakers passed SB236. The bill's sponsor Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said the legislation clarifies that State School Board candidates may run as a member of a political party, unaffiliated or as write-in candidates, no different than other candidates for state office.
Even before the bill hit Gov. Gary Herbert's desk, the Alliance for a Better Utah Education Fund urged its veto until the court rules on the constitutional challenge to a 2016 law that established partisan elections for the State School Board.
"That decision should answer the core question of whether the Utah Constitution allows state education board member elections to be partisan, and as such this change to our election code at this time is highly inappropriate,” said Chase Thomas, executive director of the alliance.
The Utah Supreme Court heard arguments in September but has not yet ruled. Earlier, a 3rd District Court judge ruled that the law conflicts with the Utah Constitution, writing that the constitutional challenge had "a strong likelihood of success on the merits.”
Herbert would not comment whether he would veto the bill, which reached final passage in the House by one vote.
"We're going to meet with our general counsel and the Attorney General's Office and see if we can have some clarification on that and see if that is good policy," Herbert said.
Contributing: Katie McKellar