Some Utah school districts are home to bustling retail economies, ski resorts and sky-high property values, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore said Monday, while others have minimal commerce and vast swaths of tax-exempt federal lands.
District boundaries were drawn when Utah was largely agrarian, Fillmore said, but over time, those lines have let some schools reap significant gains with comparatively low property-tax rates, while others struggle financially.
“If you’re in the Tintic or Cache or Ogden school district, your ability to generate revenue through a local tax effort is nowhere near what it is in Wasatch County, Uintah County and Salt Lake County,” said, Fillmore, R-South Jordan.
Sets a statewide funding floor for school districts to even out the funding disparities over time between areas with high and low property-tax values. - Read full text
So for the third year, the lawmaker is sponsoring legislation aimed at putting all Utah’s school districts on what he says will be a level playing field.
His bill, SB145, would set aside $36 million from the state’s Education Fund — with additional amounts each year — to set and then incrementally lift a statewide minimum funding level for districts.
The measure drew unanimous support Monday from the Senate Education Committee and now heads to debate in the full Senate.
‘Size of the pie’
Schools on the lower end of the state’s funding spectrum would see an immediate boost to their budgets, and eventually, all but the wealthiest Utah school districts would benefit.
But extra funding for some means less funding for all, a perennial point of contention in a state that already ranks last in the nation for per-student spending.
“It’s all about the size of the pie,” said Lisa Nentl-Bloom, executive director of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t deal with the overall aspect that we’re still underfunded.”
Fillmore acknowledged the concern, but added that if Utah schools are underfunded as a whole, then its poorest districts are particularly hard hit. To ignore funding inequities that stem from local property taxes is to place “handcuffs” on schools in low-value areas, he said.
“That’s something that needs to change for the sake of our teachers and our kids,” Fillmore said.
Nentl-Bloom said the UEA supports the concept behind Fillmore’s bill, but is concerned about using existing money for equalization.
The union, she said, prefers HB293, sponsored by Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, which would generate new money for equalization by freezing statewide property tax rates. State law currently requires property taxes to remain revenue neutral by floating down as property values rise. If those tax rates are frozen, as Last’s bill proposes, steady increases in statewide property values could lead to significant new money for education equalization.
Fillmore said he’s hopeful that his and Last’s bills will both pass, but he is running his legislation independent of HB293, which has yet to be released by the House Rules Committee.
SB145 will also have to compete on Capitol Hill for funding, going up against other legislative priorities. Last week, House Republicans discussed the possibility of earmarking roughly $40 million in this year’s budget to give a $2,000 pay hike to every public-school teacher in the state.
Various media outlets misreported that proposal as a $6,200 raise for teachers, failing to account for an existing $4,200 salary adjustment already being paid to Utah’s educators.
A draft budget discussed Monday by the Public Education Appropriations committee included $31 million for Fillmore’s bill, as well as a 3 percent increase in per-student spending.
Final state revenue numbers are expected in the coming weeks, and typically result in additional funds available for education programs.
Where credit is due
Some lawmakers have voiced frustration that the Legislature has not received appropriate credit and appreciation for its school funding efforts in recent years — a sentiment repeated Monday by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.
“Nobody applauded the Legislature for making an incredible 9 percent [increase],” he said.
The Utah Constitution requires that all income tax revenue be appropriated to public schools, including higher education.
Lawmakers may, and do, supplement school funding with sales tax and other revenues, and have authority over whether to earmark money for specific priorities — such as technology, salary increases or equalization — or to provide administrators with unrestricted cash to spend at their discretion.
Unrestricted funding typically takes the form of the Weighted Pupil Unit, or WPU, a per-student budgeting mechanism that is used to award money to schools on an equalized basis. Once appropriated, the bulk of WPU funding is used for personnel costs, including salaries and benefits for teachers.
After a large increase to per-student spending last year, several Utah school districts approved pay raises for teachers in what became known as the “salary wars.”
“If the WPU is adequately funded, districts have flexibility to target the needs they have in the districts — including salary,” said Sara Jones, government relations director for UEA.
Stephenson said the state needs to move away from treating WPU increases as the measure of lawmakers’ commitment to public education. Focusing on per-student spending, he said, has allowed funding inequities and other important issues to go overlooked for years.
“We’re basically saying we really don’t care about the quality of instruction in Nebo and Tooele,” Stephenson said, “because we have a high quality of instruction in Salt Lake and Park City.”