Governor’s proposed budget could be boon for schools
The 2016 Utah State legislative session set to begin Jan. 25 could mean good news in the form of more money for the Park City School District.
Last month, Gov. Gary Herbert released his recommended budget for the 2017 fiscal year, and it included a $281 million increase for public education. That includes a 4.75-percent increase to the weighted pupil unit (WPU), the amount of money school districts get for each student.
Todd Hauber, business administrator for the Park City School District, said that increase would amount to about $1 million for the district, which would represent a substantial windfall.
"That gives us a lot of latitude to be able to look at programming, look at staffing ratios and other in-classroom needs without a lot of pressure on being able to finance it with, say, a property tax increase," he said.
Crucially, the money would come with very few strings attached, Hauber said. The Board of Education has broad authority to determine how money received through WPUs are spent. The increase would be a positive sign in a state that in recent years has been dead last in the nation in per-student spending.
"It’s very encouraging to see that the resources that are coming in at the state level are making their way into the school districts in what we would call an unrestricted fashion," Hauber said. "That leaves flexibility for local school officials to determine how those monies are spent and what the best priorities are."
Of course, just because Gov. Herbert has recommended a substantial investment in public education doesn’t mean the Legislature will agree with his vision. And Hauber doesn’t expect it to — not completely, anyway.
"I’ve not seen the Legislature ever adopt a governor-recommended budget — it just doesn’t happen wholesale," he said. "But what it does do is set expectations. It sends a message into the legislative process that there is headroom to be able to do this kind of an increase for public education. And that setting of an expectation is very beneficial for public education. Legislators are saying, ‘The governor found a way to do it, so we can’t lowball.’"
Hauber expects the Legislature to pass a budget that includes a WPU increase in the 2.5- to 3-percent range. While that would fall well short of the 4.75 percent the governor is pushing, it would still be a boon in Park City.
"There would be more money available in the system for the students that we currently have." He said. "That’s the best scenario."
Apart from the budget, the district will keenly follow any new legislation that affects how the state takes money from districts with more wealthy tax bases and spreads it to poorer districts, a process called equalization. Last year, a bill passed to raise property taxes statewide to generate $75 million annually in new revenue.
Representatives from the Park City School District, including then-Board president Moe Hickey, criticized the bill, saying it takes money that could be spent on education in Park City and sends it to many districts that fail to adequately tax their own residents.
Hauber said more bills in that vein could be coming down the pipeline this legislative session.
"We’ll keep our eyes open on that, because we’re in a community where the wealth of the community is very much in the crosshairs of certain legislators who look to garner that wealth and spread it across the state," he said.
He added that increases in the money Park City owes through equalization limits the district’s ability to fund its own needs.
"There’s a theoretical limit as to what any community is willing to pay in taxes," he said. "And hopefully as a school district, we’d be able to access that level of acceptance within and to fund the school district itself. When the state comes and dips into that resource, it lowers that threshold for what we can do as a school district."
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.