Utah school budgets cut class sizes, popular outdoor center
By Lisa Schencker
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jun 14 2014 01:01AM
What a difference a few years make.
During the depths of the economic downturn, schools in Utah and across the country slashed budgets. Teacher salaries stagnated, class sizes swelled and programs were pared in a number of school districts.
Now, as Utah districts prepare their budgets for the next school year, the outlook is significantly better.
Some, such as Granite, still face tight budgets. As a result, Granite hopes to raise taxes slightly and shutter its popular Mill Hollow Outdoors Education Center program.
Others, however, such as Salt Lake City, are seeing budget savings, allowing them to achieve long-time goals such as lowering class size.
The Utah Legislature’s increases in the state’s base per pupil spending, known as the weighted pupil unit, have helped districts, said Bruce Williams, state associate superintendent. The budgets for many across the state are likely stabilizing, he said.
Below are the highlights — and in some cases, the low spots — of budgets for larger area school districts.
Salt Lake City • Leaders of the 24,000-student district expect to have an additional $6.8 million as a result of reduced debt service payments.
They could have lowered taxes by about $31 a year per $100,000 of a home’s value. Instead, the district’s board decided to fund items high on district leaders’ and parents’ wish lists, including lowering class sizes.
The board decided at its June meeting to decrease class sizes, give the most experienced employees a 1 percent raise and pay teachers for training days.
They want to reduce class sizes to 25 students in grades K-3 (down from a current goal of 25.65 in grades 1-3). And they want to reduce class sizes in grades 4-12 to a goal of 28 kids per class. That would be down more than half a student in grades 7-12 and down more than two students in grades 4-6.
The board will hold a truth-in-taxation hearing in August to finalize the budget because the district decided not to use the extra $6.8 million to lower taxes.
The board also decided, in May, to roll nearly $20,000 that used to be paid to Superintendent McKell Withers in the form of an annuity and bonuses into his base salary instead.
Granite District • Increases in state funding weren’t enough to cover all of the 68,100-student district’s costs for next school year. That means, among other things, it’s looking to cut at least one program and raise taxes.
The district is proposing a 2.7 percent property tax increase — a jump that would mean about an additional $25 a year on a home valued at $250,000.
The district also plans to cut its Mill Hollow Outdoor Education Center program. For decades, students have visited Mill Hollow in the Uinta Mountains to learn more about nature and the outdoors. Lawmakers, however, decided in recent years to no longer allow school districts to impose property tax levies for recreation, and funding for the center has been drying up since then, said Ben Horsley, district spokesman.
Closing it should save the district about $350,000 a year, Horsley said, though it will still pay about $150,000 a year to maintain the facilities, under its agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.
But it’s not all bad news. The district also hopes to spend more than $3 million paying for three days of additional training for teachers. They’re also proposing a fourth day, but that training day would replace a current classroom day.
Why add training days now?
"With the enhanced use of technology, with the enhanced accountability as required by the Legislature, in addition to requiring teachers to improve academic outcomes, we are lacking sorely in professional development," Horsley said.
Granite teachers haven’t had paid training since lawmakers cut such days out of the state’s budget during the downturn.
The Granite board will likely approve a budget at its public meeting on Tuesday. The board will also have to hold a truth-in-taxation public hearing in August.
Canyons • Canyons District’s $358 million budget is full of mainly good news for the 33,700-student district next school year.
In addition to funding regularly scheduled teacher raises, known as steps and lanes, the district is also giving varying cost-of-living increases to all its employees. The district also plans to pay teachers for an additional two days of training and report card preparation.
It’s a slightly smaller budget than this past school year’s $367 million plan, but that’s mainly because of lower spending on building projects and savings on debt service payments, said Jennifer Toomer-Cook, district spokeswoman.
The budget includes about $7.5 million for small building projects.
And it includes dollars to add ninth-grade athletics, three secondary achievement coaches (educators who help teachers improve achievement) and two full-time employees to expand preschool and all-day kindergarten at Midvalley Elementary, among other things.
Canyons is not proposing any property tax increases. The district board approved its budget at its Tuesday meeting.
Jordan • Taxes should also remain steady in the 52,800-student Jordan District.
The district, which approved a $430 million budget Tuesday, plans to give all employees cost-of-living salary increases for the next two school years.
For the upcoming school year, the increase will be 1.25 percent.
The district also plans to reduce its counselor-to-student ratio at its middle and high schools to the state-recommended level of one counselor for every 350 students.
Alpine • The Alpine board plans to vote on its proposed $634 million budget Tuesday.
The district, which is the largest in the state with 72,400 students, doesn’t plan any tax increases or program cuts.
Rather, the district plans to hire 65 additional full-time teachers to help reduce class size where needed.
The district also plans to continue to give extra performance pay to teachers who show they work well within teams known as professional learning communities. And the district plans to continue awarding grants to teachers to pay them for team-based preparation over the summer.
Davis • The Davis School District board approved its $415 million budget on Tuesday. The budget does not include a tax increase, but it also does not include any cost-of-living increases for employees.
The 68,600-student district plans to move to a self-funded insurance plan, which will allow it to cut employees’ premiums from 12 percent to 6 percent.