Lawmakers come to compromise with Our Schools Now initiative
Lack of funding in Utah public schools and equalization of money among districts has been an ongoing conversation in the state for several years.
This year, Utah lawmakers voted to increase the amount of funding and divvy the money more equally for education statewide.
Under pressure from a citizen initiative called Our Schools Now, the Utah State Legislature worked together with the group, which involved business leaders and representatives from the Utah Education Association, to write a compromise. Next school year, public education in Utah will receive an additional $292 million. An additional $845 per pupil could be distributed to schools by 2023, according to a press release from the Utah House of Representatives.
“The power and momentum of the Our Schools Now initiative, with the thousands and thousands of signatures that were gathered, was very influential in this legislative session,” said Heidi Matthews, a former librarian at Treasure Mountain Junior High School and president of the Utah Education Association.
In H.B. 293, the Legislature voted to freeze the state basic property tax rate for five years and establish a new weighted pupil unit value tax rate. The weighted pupil unit is the mechanism the state uses to fund public education.
The Legislature also voted to create a teacher and student success account to be used to supplement school funding. School districts will have the power to determine how money is used.
Matthews said that theaccount is one of the things that excited her most about the compromise. She said that, although the account will grow to be about half of what the Our Schools Now initiative was asking for, the details of how the funds will be distributed align with the group’s goals.
The compromise also included H.J.R. 20, which authorized a non-binding question on the November ballot to ask if voters want to increase the fuel tax by 10 cents per gallon. Such an increase would be expected to generate approximately $170 million in new revenue for the Transportation Fund. Thirty percent would go toward maintaining roads and the rest, 70 percent, would go toward education.
Matthews said that, over the years, transportation has taken money from the general fund that would have been set aside for education. For that reason, a boost to the gas tax was proposed for the funding, rather than an increase to the income and sales taxes, which was the proposition made by Our Schools Now.
Eighty percent of the education money from the gas tax increase would go toward the teacher and student success account for K-12 and 20 percent would be used for higher education, she said.
Matthews said that now, those who were helping to gather signatures for the Our Schools Now initiative will change gears to educate voters about the gas tax. At the time of the session, Our Schools Now had gathered 150,000 signatures, more than the 113,000 it needed to be on this year’s ballot.
Megan Luckan, who helped gather signatures in Park City, said the compromise is encouraging because it focuses on spreading funds throughout the state. She said that she quickly learned that there was a funding problem when she moved to Utah several years ago. She frequently heard of teachers paying for supplies out of their own pocket in school districts in the valley.
She said that because of organizations like the Park City Education Foundation, people in Park City often do not notice that there is a statewide crisis going on.
Todd Hauber, business administrator for the Park City School District, said that some in Park City might see the numbers going in and coming out after a chunk of local property tax money is distributed to other poorer districts and be concerned that it is getting the short end of the stick.
Due to the compromise, Park City is expected to generate between $900,000 and $1 million through property taxes for education. It would be receiving between $500,000 and $600,000. That is only for this year, though.
“It will be interesting to see how the rest of the story comes together,” he said. “At this first step, it doesn’t look too great, but I think it is just step No. 1. We will see what the rest of the compromise brings to the table.”
Other bills that passed this year during the legislative session include H.B. 10, which involved a recodification of the public education code, and H.B. 132 and H.R. 1, which allow the district and the justice system to have better dialogue about truant students.
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Compensation is the largest issue left on the table after a contract governing most every other aspect of teachers’ employment was negotiated earlier in June.