Educators cross fingers during legislation
Ryan Summerlin January 28, 2014
Park City School District Board of Education president Maurice "Moe" Hickey said he always receives a chuckle when he mentions that Utah is ranked 55th in the country when it comes to per-pupil funding.
"I know there are only 50 states, but we are behind the Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia," Hickey said. "In order to catch up to Mississippi, which is ranked no. 49, we would have to increase taxes by $300 million a year."
Kidding aside, Hickey says funding for public education is a serious concern, which will be addressed now that lawmakers in Utah have returned to the Capitol for the General Session of the State Legislature. Like Hickey, educators throughout Summit County have both hopes and concerns regarding upcoming education funding bills that will be debated from now through March 13.
A bill that concerns representatives of all three districts is one sponsored by Sen. Aaron Osmond (R District 10), S.B. 111. The Education Funding Equalization bill proposes changing the distribution of school property taxes and funding.
Hickey said he and the board have heard the bill will freeze the district’s minimum basic tax rate, taking any increase above the frozen rate and putting it into a pool for redistribution on a per-student basis using community councils as the conduit.
"My problem with any equalization bill is that we are No. 1 in the country when it comes to equalization, and it’s not new money," Hickey said. "It’s somewhat new money, but it is creating winners and losers. If you are calling it equalization, there should not be winners and losers but rather it should benefit all."
Hickey said there is often talk at the beginning of the legislative session about funding growth – an increase in students – but what the state funds in growth does not cover the cost. It still leaves room for supplementation, something he said Park City is fortunate enough to be able to do. "For the time being, we’ve been able to fund ourselves," he said.
South Summit School District superintendent Barry Walker agreed that the bill could have a negative effect on his district as well as the Park City School District by losing some of the revenue collected in their areas to other districts that do not have the revenue sources they do.
"I would like to see us help out other districts if we can, but not if it is going to put us in a difficult position," he said. "Utah has one of the most equalized formulas in the country, so maybe [the bill] can improve that. I know Osmond is trying to do a good thing, but I am just concerned that it is fair."
Walker’s main concern is that it is already difficult to hire quality teachers who can afford to live in the area, so taking funds from the district will make it even more difficult to do so.
Hickey said revenue does not solve all the needs of education and there is no dollar-for-dollar correlation between school improvement and revenue, but the fact that Utah is ranked no. 55 in per-pupil funding in the United States means resources are stretched thin.
"When the state does not fund something, equalization pops its head up," he said. "They start looking for other people to pay for it. Park City has been hit with that pretty hard over the years."
North Summit School District superintendent Jerre Holmes said he hopes legislators will take action regarding unfunded mandates. "[That kind of mandate] is just one more thing that is difficult for us to do, because there is no money tied to it so we can actually do it," he said.
Walker said Senate Bill 148, sponsored by Sen. J. Stuart Adams (R-District 22), will fully fund a mandate called the UPSTART preschool program as permanent.
"It is a preschool program for kids before they enter kindergarten in order for them to get the hang of basic skills," Walker said. "I think it is a good bill, so I hope it passes."
Hickey said he is optimistic about a cyber-bullying bill the state school board is putting together, because it is an issue all students face today. Sen. Gage Froerer (R-District 8) is sponsoring House Bill 241, which includes parental notification if their child threatens to commit suicide or if their child is the subject of cyber-bullying, harassment, hazing or retaliation.
"We need parental involvement in terms of things that take place outside of school that affect the inside of school," Hickey said. "I think that would be a good bill from what I have heard so far, and I think that is an important one to pass."
Holmes said he is just hoping lawmakers will be fair both financially and legislatively, because there are so many things educators are trying to accomplish and keep up with regarding laws. "It would be nice to have a year where we don’t have to tackle something new," he said.
The next two months will demonstrate whether or not there is a disconnect between the wants and needs of Utahns and in what direction the legislature is headed. There are plenty of bills that have not yet been discussed that may come up between now and March 13, which Holmes said is a concern every year.
"Some bills do not get written until halfway through and sneak up on us," he said.
Walker had the same concern, saying the final leg of the legislative session is when some last-minute bills go through that may look like a great deal but have bits and pieces thrown in at the last possible moment in the rush to finish them up.
"That is what I worry about," he said. "I just hope our senators will have everything well done before then."