Education, transportation face off in legislative session
Starting off the year with notes of optimism, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman delivered his annual State of the State address on Tuesday evening. Among proposals and praise for initiatives in healthcare, air quality and renewable energy, education was near the top of Huntsman’s list. "We must acknowledge it is all of us, our kids, our communities and our businesses that are being impacted by our decisions," he said. "And none of those decisions is more important than education."
The governor commended legislators for making full-day kindergarten available to Utah residents. Thanks to state funding, the Park City Board of Education approved no-cost, full-day kindergarten programs at each of the district elementary schools last February. The programs are available to at-risk students who qualify through kindergarten readiness assessments (the program is geared toward those who could benefit most from additional instruction). District-wide, about 100 students are enrolled in the program. Students who are not eligible for full-day kindergarten are enrolled in the half-day program.
Community Education afternoon kindergarten programs are available at Parley’s Park and Jeremy Ranch Elementary Schools (Trailside will be added next year) for a fee of $3,900. Superintendent Ray Timothy explains that there is limited state funding for full-day programs. "The ultimate goal is to provide full-day kindergarten for all students at no cost," he says. However, the district will not be able to take steps toward this objective in the near future. With the budget reduction, there will be no additional funding allocated to full-day programs, Timothy says.
The governor also dubbed 2009 the "Year of Math," an effort aimed at heightening workforce preparation, and addressed increasing teacher salaries something he has been advocating for years. However, he said, due to the economy, offering educators a more competitive wage might not be feasible. "While in these times we may not be able to further that investment, we must not lose ground," Huntsman said.
Huntsman told legislators that he plans to resume the $3.9 billion transportation projects that were suspended indefinitely in November. "After working with legislative leaders on nearing a solution for the current budget, tonight I am directing the Utah Department of Transportation to reinstate major road projects that were delayed," he said.
Huntsman says he doesn’t want to use money from the state’s general fund to finance the projects; instead he wants to take out bonds and dip into reserve funds, thus increasing the state’s debt. Huntsman’s supporters agree that this is an effective way to keep other programs, education in particular, from sustaining detrimental budget cuts.
However, those who are against Huntsman’s proposal say that now is not the time to create new debt. Their solution is to cut the budget across the board seven percent for the remainder of the 2009 fiscal year, which ends in July, and an additional 15 percent for the 2010 fiscal year. Huntsman’s opponents are worried that the economy will get worse and increasing the debt should be a last-ditch effort; they agree that state programs need to do what they can to absorb the financial losses.
The legislature is in its first week of the 45-day session, and as the squaring off proceeds, education and transportation will likely be at the forefront of this debate. It goes back to the basic economic model of guns or butter: Should the government invest in defense (roads) or civilian needs (education)? As the battle plays out on the Senate floor, proponents of both sides will face strong opinions and stalwart stances.
Kevin Callahan, Summit County Public Works Administrator, says that a reduced state transportation budget could mean deferring maintenance projects. "It could have an impact on us," he says. "It might mean not being able to maintain the roads at the level we have in the past." Callahan adds that the impact would neither be immediate nor dramatic. Local roads that are funded by the state include State Routes 224, 248 and 32, U.S. Route 40, and Interstate 80.
According to Park City School District Superintendent Ray Timothy, the decision of what areas would be impacted by an education budget cut would lie with the local board of education. He mentioned that 85 to 90 percent of the budget in the district goes to personnel, so one possibility would be making staff reductions. School programs would also stand to lose funding, he says. "The quality we’ve been trying to maintain would be threatened." Timothy was on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon, where figures were still being negotiated. He said local school districts may be asked to cut 3.5 percent from their budgets for the remainder of the current fiscal year.
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Park City leaders on Thursday will likely hold a special meeting to consider an idea crafted by Main Street businesses to close the street to traffic on Sundays in the summer and early fall in favor of a pedestrian zone.