Legislature ends with increased funding for education, student wellness
As the Utah Legislature came to a close last Thursday, school districts around the state counted their successes.
The session ended with a significant increase in funding for public education, including money set aside for mental health services in Utah schools. Todd Hauber, business administrator for the Park City School District, said some of the most impactful bills from the session addressed school funding, school safety and student wellness.
One important piece of legislation increased the weighted pupil unit, which is a formula used to determine the amount of school funding, by 4 percent. Hauber said state education officials originally asked lawmakers to increase the WPU by 5.5 percent, but he considers a 4 percent increase a win. The Legislature increased the WPU by 4 percent last year, too.
Hauber said the funds will help pay for a three-year compensation package for Park City teachers that the district implemented in 2017. He said the district at the time anticipated the WPU would increase by 2.5 percent each year during the contract.
“That is good news, and it’s really good for Park City,” he said. “Getting 4 percent means we’ve financed our commitments from two and a half years ago.”
The Legislature also formed the Teacher and Student Success Act, which emerged out of conversations with Our Schools Now, a citizen initiative to boost education funding. The Teacher and Student Success Act is a program that explains how funds totaling about $100 million should be spent at individual schools around the state, Hauber said. Utah public schools will receive additional funding based on their student population, and the principals at each school will determine how to use it.
The district expects to receive an additional $700,000 for its schools through the act, Hauber said. Principals will be able to use up to 25 percent of the funds for teacher compensation and 5 percent for teacher retention. The rest will be used for other school needs.
H.B. 373, from Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, provides more funding for counselors, psychologists and social workers. The funds are available on a grant basis, Hauber said. The district intends to apply for funding to pay for its mental health services already in place.
Hauber said the bill is beneficial to Utah schools, especially because the language was changed to include districts that already added personnel for mental health. The bill originally excluded districts with sufficient mental health services in place.
“We said, ‘Wait, you shouldn’t harm those who already have taken measures and made it a priority to have mental health services at the schools,’” he said.
Another bill addressed counselors at schools by stating that counselor services should differentiate between academic counseling and mental health services. Counselors frequently advise students about preparing for college and selecting classes, but also help with mental health issues, Hauber said. H.B. 81, which passed, calls for the duties to be separate. The Utah State Board of Education is tasked with dividing the duties into distinct categories.
The Legislature also passed H.B. 250, which requires schools in the state to eliminate fees for textbooks and defined what is considered a school fee. Hauber said Park City eliminated fees for textbooks last year when it decided to remove all school fees, but the changes to the definition of a school fee will impact the district.
Under the bill, a school fee includes anything that students have to purchase in order to participate in a class, including calculators or books. Hauber said the district is currently evaluating courses to see if there are any required materials for students.
“This law passing will now require us to really be diligent and make sure we’ve covered all those bases,” he said.
The bill also requires school boards to hold two public hearings on school fees before adopting them. Conversations about school fees and student equity picked up last year after two audits found many Utah schools were charging large fees to participate in classes and extracurricular activities. The Park City Board of Education voted last year to eliminate most school fees.
There were some bills aimed at improving safety and security in Utah schools that either failed or passed with significant changes. H.B. 120 originally provided funding for capital improvements at schools and for the formation of threat assessment teams at schools, but both propositions were left out of the final bill that passed. Ultimately, the bill created a committee at the state level that will advise districts about best practices for safety procedures.
A bill that restricted people from carrying a dangerous weapon within 500 feet of schools failed. It was proposed as a safety measure.
“Focus on the data outcomes, on the academic achievement outcomes, on the rankings that we have. The school board is happy with the direction of the district,” said Andrew Caplan, school board president. “We can always do a better job, especially with things that aren’t our core expertise like building and land management.”
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