Public schools got a lot more help than usual this year from the Permanent State School Fund, a roughly $2.3 billion investment portfolio supported by trust lands.
At a Wednesday morning event at Nibley Park School in Salt Lake City, State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson and Utah State Treasurer David Damschen announced an award of $64.25 million for the 2017-2018 school year, the largest distribution from the fund in state history.
“Every dollar we earn through prudent investment of the Permanent State School Fund is a dollar in school funding not paid by the Utah taxpayer,” Damschen said in a statement. “These funds support the greatest academic needs at individual schools, such as classroom technology right here at Nibley Park.”
Wednesday’s announcement represented a 30 percent increase, or roughly $15 million, over the $49.3 million awarded to public schools last year.
The Permanent State School Fund is supported by revenue from 3.3 million acres of land held in trust for the benefit of Utah schoolchildren. Money from trust lands is given directly to local schools, and spent at the discretion of school community councils.
At Nibley Park, Principal Francis Battle said her school’s share of the $64.25 million is roughly $44,000, which is used to hire an aide for the school’s computer lab, to provide training to teachers and to enhance art education for students.
“Academics are at the top of my list, but I also feel that students need the exposure,” Battle said. “Research shows that often when students are exposed to the arts, it helps them perform in school.”
While $44,000 is a relatively small portion of her school’s overall funding, Battle said its absence would be deeply felt.
“If that was taken away tomorrow, that would take away my computer lab,” Battle said. ”Not the lab itself, but it would take away the opportunity to have someone in there, daily, to provide all of the different opportunities for our students.”
The Permanent State School Fund has shown steady growth in recent years, but the current increase in funding is further fueled by an amendment to Utah’s Constitution — approved by voters last year— that allows managers to include both interest and earnings in their appropriations to local schools.
Prior to the amendment, Damschen said, schools were strictly limited to only interest and dividends from the portfolio’s stocks and bonds. He said those provisions excluded capital gains from school awards.
“There‘s a one-year surge because we changed the calculation,” Damschen said. “It will give schools more predictability and less volatility in distributions going forward.”
The investment strategy was also more aggressive in the past, Damschen said, prioritizing expansion over consistency. Annual funding to schools has increased by more than $45 million over 10 years, but that period also saw steep rises and falls in the lead-up and aftermath of the Great Recession.
“We’ve changed our primary objective from growth to intergenerational equity,” Damschen said.
Dickson said the state and its public schools are lucky to have trust land and fund administrators. Money matters in education, she said, and the supplemental funding provided by the Permanent State School Fund makes a difference for students and teachers.
“The School LAND Trust program brings millions of much-needed dollars to be used for classroom students,” Dickson said in a statement. “Schools develop these plans to improve student academic performance in targeted ways determined by local stakeholders.”