SALT LAKE CITY — As legislative subcommittees began the thankless task of making cuts to state education base budgets Wednesday, they were reminded that the cuts don’t just affect programs, they impact people.
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, addressing the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, acknowledged that Utah lawmakers face many difficult decisions in the days ahead.
“We ask that you keep in mind that any cuts to the public education budget will be devastating to Utah students,” she said.
Legislative leaders have tasked appropriation subcommittees to develop scenarios under which base budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1 could be cut by 2%, 5% or 10%.
In March, Utah educators celebrated one of the largest increases in the state’s public education budget in recent memory, “up nearly over 10% over the current year,” Matthews said.
If that goes to the wayside and base budgets are also cut by 10%, it’s more like a 20% reduction than what educators believed had materialized in early March, she said.
“We dispute, the UEA disputes, the assumption that the discussion must begin with budget reduction scenarios of 2% and 10% from the base budget. No cuts should be considered until revenue project projections are fully understood and every option for backfilling any budget shortfalls has been explored,” Matthews said.
That includes bonding, using rainy day funds, Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, and nonlapsing balances.
“Any other potential revenue sources or expense deferred must all be considered before making any cuts to public education,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested teachers “who adjusted on the fly” to teach using distance methods, which at the time was necessary “and provided a degree of continued learning for our students,” Matthews said.
“But I think we all agree that it is in no way an adequate replacement for the daily personal interactions between students and a highly qualified educator in a well-resourced classroom,” she said.
Matthews asked the subcommittee members to keep in mind that education employs tens of thousands of people in rural Utah and budget cuts would set back fragile rural economies that were struggling before the impacts of COVID-19.
Moreover, budget cuts could also impact increased needs of schools as they plan to reopen this fall. More personnel will be needed if schools shift to split sessions or offer hybrid instruction.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson cautioned against across-the-board cuts, which the agency experienced during the Great Recession.
“It was definitely not fun but it was also not equitable when you just treat everything the same and just take a percentage off. That’s sort of the ‘easy button’ in terms of how to do work, but it’s not the best work for the field,” she said.
This year, perhaps more so than any other in her career, Utah teachers deserve praise and raises, she said.
Utah educators “really leaned into something brand new, learning at home. So we’re really trying to protect where we could. When you get into the numbers of $380 million, it’s pretty hard to hold programs and teachers harmless, for sure,” she said.
While some committee members empathized with educators, others questioned how the Utah State Board of Education arrived at its recommendations for base budget cuts.
House Majority Leader Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, questioned why the state school board recommended zero funding for some initiatives without explanation, such as the Teacher Student Success Act program, which was a legislative initiative.
“When we choose to totally eliminate programs without explanation and we can’t justify why a particular program was totally eliminated and something else wasn’t, it just looks like favoritism. Or, it may look like something that the board or someone else just doesn’t like to administer or to oversee so this is a good time to clean house to get rid of things,” Gibson said.
Dickson said she took “umbrage, a little bit, with this notion that there are things we just didn’t like so we got rid of them. It’s not the case at all.”
After the difficult year that educators have experienced and in effort to protect jobs, the staff did its due diligence to make thoughtful recommendations for budget reductions.
“I don’t want anyone out there to think anybody took this lightly ... that we didn’t do our best effort. This was hard and nobody wanted to do it. We’re not picking on programs. We’re trying to preserve what is best for kiddos,” Dickson said.
Wednesday afternoon, the Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee deliberated cuts to the base budget for the state’s higher education system.
University and college presidents urged lawmakers to consider the implications of budget cuts, which could impact wrap-around services for first-generation college students, scholarships, matching funds for building projects, and career and job training that will help students gain or retain employment as the state and nation digs out of an economic downturn.
Deep cuts would likely mean job cuts, said Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin. A proposed 10% funding cut would translate into a reduction of 97 full-time positions at the college, she said.
“I’m worried with some of these larger cuts that it starts to eat into our student support services, and potentially faculty in some of those areas,” she said.
University of Utah President Ruth Watkins told lawmakers as they contemplate $2 billion in cuts to the state’s $20 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, they need to consider revenue hits the university has already experienced due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It received no revenue from NCAA basketball tournaments, likewise for canceled on-campus events, facility rentals, camps and museum admissions. Elective medical procedures were put on hold to ensure University of Utah Hospital could meet the needs of patients with COVID-19.
Lesser cuts could be addressed through efficiencies and reducing travel, but “such a large part of our budget is people so there are implications there,” she said.
Once cuts reach 5% and 10% “we’re talking about not only holding positions open but needing to reduce the workforce,” Watkins said.
Less support for students will likely affect graduation rates and cuts to the university’s research engine will result in financial implications for the state.
Moreover, ensuring that Utah universities and colleges can help students attain their education goals will help them obtain or retain employment over the long haul.
“If you look at statistics on who has been reemployed of those who’ve been laid off, 50% of those who’ve been reemployed now have some post-baccalaureate credential,” she said.