Passing the buck
It's an old refrain, but becoming more true with each passing year: Utah schools are underfunded, and the Legislature's "solutions" only shift the burden of paying for education to school districts.
The Tooele School District, facing a shortfall of $1 million in this year's budget after cutting nearly $12 million in recent years, might have to raise taxes or cut programs, close schools and lay off teachers and other employees to meet a $3 million projected deficit next year.
Education funding "reform" passed by the Legislature has shifted state funds from slower-growing districts such as Tooele to faster-growing areas.
Tooele School District received $2.4 million in 2011 from the state capital outlay fund, which helps districts pay off debt, add classrooms and adjust to enrollment surges. Tooele's share shrank by half the following year and now is just $430,000.
In 2008 the state capital outlay fund totaled $77 million. It now contains less than $15 million, and fast-growing districts where home values dropped sharply in the last five years but where enrollment climbed, are getting the bulk of the fund's payout.
But, more to the point than how funds are allocated is the fact there simply isn't enough money. Moving inadequate funds around, helping some districts while starving districts like Tooele, doesn't solve the state's education crisis. And, make no mistake, the Beehive State indeed has reached an education funding crisis.
Lawmakers this year put state revenue into per-student spending and crowed that they had increased funding for education more than at any time in the recent past. But most of the increase went to a small but necessary salary increase and to required pension and benefit funds. Very little, if any, new money went to instruction, with the exception of legislators' pet projects, including programs to boost science, technology, engineering and math.
Conservative Republican legislators refuse to be associated with anything resembling a tax increase, so they pass the buck to local districts that must act just to keep schools open.
State Sen. Howard Stephenson, chairman of the Senate committee that allocates public-school money, admits that "If you're a poor district with lots of students and very little tax base, that's a problem." But he and his colleagues have put distance between that problem and themselves.
Long the most underfunded education system in the nation, Utah schools need a new source of revenue real additional revenue and they need it soon.