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Record state funding for Utah schools likely thwarted by COVID-19 impacts, legislative resolution warns

Lawmakers telling schools, colleges and local governments to ‘tighten belts’

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The Utah State Board of Education building in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

The Utah State Board of Education building in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Remember the record public education funding appropriated by lawmakers during the 2020 session of the Utah Legislature that ended just over a month ago?

“It was our best session ever,” Canyons School District business administrator Leon Wilcox told the school board Tuesday.

“We got a 6% WPU increase ... a total increase of about 9.3% in the Minimum School Program. ... It was fun to have all of that for a month,” he said of the major state funding sources schools rely on.

Then came the shuttering of all but essential businesses that public health officials say are necessary to curb the spread of novel coronavirus. And now lawmakers are warning schools that education money could be pared back to last year’s budget plus funding for enrollment growth, even as districts begin hashing out their next budgets and negotiate teacher contracts

Closure orders put crimp on state budget

In early March, Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which was followed by the “Utah Leads Together” plan that anticipates two to three months of job losses followed by a 14-week period of stabilization.

On March 27, the governor issued a statewide “stay safe, stay some” directive that limits the size of gatherings, asks people to leave the house only for essential errands and exercise and closed gyms, in-restaurant dining, bars and restricted “nonessential businesses” from operating.

The closures resulted in job losses for tens of thousands of Utahns and presumably, a significant loss of state income tax revenue. In Utah, income taxes are earmarked for schools and colleges.

“No one really knows what the impact of COVID-19 is. I think it’s going to be greater than many people think. I know a lot of people think it’s going to be very large,” Wilcox said.

The “fiscal responsibility” resolution passed by Utah lawmakers last week urges schools, public colleges and universities and state and local governmental entities to rein in spending and “refrain from committing to new or expanded expenditures for the fiscal year.”

HJR301, sponsored Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, tells public schools to prepare for the possibility that the education budget for the upcoming fiscal year could be pared back to the base budget passed at the beginning of the legislative session, which is last year’s budget and funding for enrollment growth. 

“We know that the budget we came out with in March is not going to be the budget we’ll end up with. We know it will be smaller, but we don’t know how much,” Moss said while presenting his bill in the House. The resolution leaves open the possibility that as the revenue picture improves, funding could be restored to budgets.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, described the resolution as “incredibly wise.”

“I want to compliment leadership for getting this out there,” he added.

Trying to get set for next school year

Although local education leaders understand the COVID-19 pandemic triggered an economic crisis, they must still assemble district-level budgets and negotiate working agreements with teachers in preparation for the next academic year.

Wilcox said employees and benefits comprise 87% of Canyons District’s budget, so the impacts are significant.

Some, such as Granite School District, have already completed contract negotiations with teachers, agreeing to a 5% cost-of-living raise for the 2020-21 school year. The agreement will increase starting pay for teachers to $50,380 annually.

The school district took HJR301 into consideration and intends to honor the agreement with the Granite Education Association by not filling vacant paraprofessional positions and other cost savings, said district spokesman Ben Horsley.

“We are really in a dire situation if we do not raise our salaries because we were already $6,000 below the average salary in the county. We were not filling positions prior to that agreement. The reason we came to such quick terms to raise those salaries was so we could start filling our vacant teaching positions, and we’ve been successful at doing so. We need to hold fast to that agreement that has been made and look at cuts in other places as opposed to not having teachers, which is not acceptable,” he said.

Wilcox said it may be June before state leaders act on changes to the state budget.

HJR301 is nonbinding but gives state agencies, local governments, public schools and public colleges and universities “prior notice that there is going to be an effect on our budget and on their budgets,” said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara.