Panel reviews impact of new bills
Each year, public opinion polls in Utah indicate that public education is one of the most important issues debated by the Utah Legislature, Park City resident and KSL News Anchor Nadine Wimmer said in opening the panel discussion at Ecker Hill March 23. Wimmer, who identified herself as a Park City school parent, moderated the forum of state legislators and education officials as part of Education Awareness Month in the Park City School District.
In an effort to increase community involvement in the public schools, the Park City School District Board of Education organized weekly discussion panels, which covered a myriad of prominent and current topics. The final forum last Wednesday was the best-attended of the series, according to Patrick Ogden.
The panel consisted of Reps. Melvin Brown, R-Coalville, Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake, Keith Powell, R-Heber, Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, Dixie Allen of the Utah State Board of Education and State Deputy Superintendent Martell Menlove, who discussed the effects of the recently concluded legislative session.
Funding as the big issue
Many of the panelists spent the evening pinpointing a lack of funding as the biggest challenge facing education during this year’s legislative session. Menlove said that of the 28 bills that received a number but did not pass, there was not a single one the Utah State Board of Education had supported. He was, however, troubled by the fact that enrollment growth was not fully funded.
Utah remains the state with the lowest per-pupil funding in the country, he said. In order to overtake Idaho as the second lowest, Utah would have to increase education funding by roughly 22 percent, a matter of nearly $1 billion, he added.
Van Tassell pointed to the fact that the majority of the electorate in Utah does not want tax increases, which makes budget deficits difficult to recover. Van Tassell proposed a short-lived bill that would have raised gasoline taxes, which never made it beyond the Senate floor, he said.
"It’s a tough row to hoe to raise taxes," Briscoe said as he outlined the challenges he faced in trying to propose a bill that would increase funding. "There are no easy fixes," Powell said about education funding. "We’ve got to have more money and until the electorate says we do want taxes increased, we aren’t going to get it."
Brown, who is the co-chair of the executive appropriations committee, addressed property-tax equalization as a battle he intends to continue fighting but will likely not ever end. Equalization redistributes locally-raised property taxes to other districts throughout the state. He said the issue is the equalization of capital funds because the areas of the greatest population growth have the most votes and also need the most funds in order to build enough to meet resident needs.
"I represent seven school districts and six of the seven are in the top eight per-pupil funding in the entire state," Brown said. "All districts I represent but one would be a major contributor in equalization for capital."
Allen, whose school-board district covers most of eastern Utah, spoke of changes that will greatly impact curriculum in schools, such as the new math and language common core. Currently, Utah’s per-pupil spending is about half of the national average, Allen said. The common core will help struggling students with math and language fundamentals, but due to a lack of funding it may take a few years before the core would cater to the needs of high-performers, she added.
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