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Utah House speaker urges teachers union to ‘consider alternatives’ to walkout

Teachers ‘walking for students,’ not out on them, Salt Lake association president says

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Ahead of a planned walkout by members of the Salt Lake Education Association on Friday, House Speaker Brad Wilson is urging educators to “consider alternatives.”

“We strongly believe there are more productive ways to express concern which avoid the unnecessary disruption of the education of Utah students and the inconvenience for parents who may have to adjust work schedules to accommodate the walkout,” Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a statement on behalf of House leaders Wednesday.

The walkout is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday, starting at the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building, followed by a march to the state Capitol and a rally.

Wilson expressed frustration with the Salt Lake Education Association’s plans to walk out.

“I’m going to take a deep breath because this is very frustrating to me. We have had no one reach out from that education association asking for a meeting and we’ve been meeting with education stakeholders daily. We will continue to be up here working to try to solve the education funding needs of our state like we have been all session,” he said.

Wilson added: “In addition to the record high amounts of investment we have made in public education over the last five to 10 years, we will be making a significant contribution to the weighted pupil unit this year and we’ll be helping protect public education funding in the future as well,” through a proposed separate rainy day fund for ongoing income tax revenues earmarked for education that could total $100 million.

Salt Lake Education Association President James Tobler in a statement said teachers will be proud to “Walk for Students” on Friday.

“Let’s be clear, teachers are not walking out on students. We’re walking for our students. The Salt Lake Education Association notified the school district well in advance to ensure there would be minimal disruption to the education process — students will get a day of instruction, breakfast and lunch and after-school programs as planned,” Tobler said.

In a letter to school district patrons regarding the association’s day of action, Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham wrote that the district’s highest priorities are the education and safety of students.

“With so many teachers anticipated to participate in the walkout, we will not have the capacity to provide adequate supervision to keep your students safe and learning that afternoon,” she wrote. As such, the district will be implementing a half-day schedule on Friday.

Wilson’s statement says legislative leaders “stand ready to visit Salt Lake City School District schools to help in the classroom if administrators need support during this disruption. We encourage the teachers to consider alternatives, including meeting with legislative leadership and reviewing actual funding proposals.”

Utah Senate leaders, meanwhile, also issued a statement that said in part, “As we work to balance the state’s budget during the next three weeks, we will carefully review proposed legislation and funding proposals from legislators, stakeholders, engaged constituents and community leaders. We will be receiving and evaluating input from the state’s top government, industry and education leaders as well as individuals and families,” the Senate statement said in part.

Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said the association supports a long-term funding focus on individualized instruction, the teacher shortage; student equity and student health and safety.

“Full implementation of these goals will require a sustained funding effort over many years. The Education Day of Action on Feb. 28 is an opportunity to highlight the things Utah teachers know will help their students succeed and showcase key areas where investments will lead to student success.” Matthews said in a statement.

The Senate leaders’ statement notes that since 2015, Utah has spent about half of all state funds on public education. Legislators have increased annual public education spending from about $2.8 billion to $3.8 billion — a 37% percent increase.

Public education funding has increased an average of $205 million each year. This is equivalent to a more than 6% annual increase in the value of the weighted pupil unit, the statement says.

According to Wilson, legislators froze and indexed the basic property tax levy, generating $161 million.

Utah lawmakers created the Teacher and Student Success Act Program, which is providing nearly $99 million in ongoing funds to school districts and charter schools to enhance teacher compensation, retention and other school-level priorities.

More than $32 million in ongoing funds has been appropriated to school districts, charter schools, the State Board of Education, and the SafeUT app program to bolster student health, school counseling and crisis support.

“Unfortunately, the Salt Lake Education Association did not reach out to us to discuss their concerns with education appropriations prior to posting a notice online that teachers plan to walk out of their classrooms on Feb. 28,” the statement says.

Tobler noted that Salt Lake teachers have been engaging in the the political process in recent weeks, months “and even years” by writing letters, attending town hall meetings, speaking directly to lawmakers and inviting legislators into their classrooms.

“In fact, more than 50 Salt Lake Education Association teachers used personal time to meet with legislators on Capitol Hill just a few days ago. Still, despite our best efforts to reach out, our voices are not being heard. This Friday’s ‘Walk for Students’ continues our efforts to advocate for students,” he wrote.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche