Millions in federal support for Utah schools teeters on fiscal cliff

Published December 28, 2012 8:45 am

Funding • Cuts would mean millions of dollars less for the state's education.
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Ten large Utah school districts would feel the impact of a tumble off the impending federal fiscal cliff, since they receive from 8 percent to 20 percent of their budgets from Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama returned to Washington on Thursday in a final effort to negotiate a deal with Congress on the fiscal cliff, a series of tax increases and government spending cuts set to begin next week. Unless Congress comes to a compromise before Jan. 3, a 2011 agreement to reduce discretionary spending will cut 8.2 percent from the federal education budget.

Utah education officials predict an 8 percent federal cut would mean $25 million less for Utah schools in 2013-14.

"We sent out [information] estimating what the impact would be in August and putting them on notice," said Bruce Williams, the Utah Department of Education's budget director and associate superintendent for business services and operations.

More than 1,500 school systems nationwide depend on federal funding for more than 20 percent of their annual income, including the Ogden School District, according to a report by Jennifer Cohen Kabaker, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D C., think tank.

The federal government contributed a national average of 12 percent for the education of children in the 2011-12 school year.

But the federal portion varies for each district because of student body differences. In Utah's large districts, it ranged from 20.5 percent of the Ogden School District's annual budget to 8.4 percent for Canyons School District.

However, most Utah districts collect around 12 percent of their budgets from federal funds, including both Alpine School District and Davis County School District.

Federal money helps districts deal with several issues. Schools with low-income and disabled students receive grants through a program called Title I and under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Those are the two largest sources of the federal government's support for schools. But schools also can receive money via a Basic Grant Formula that helps schools with at least 10 poor children and a low-income population of at least 2 percent. That means even wealthy districts can get federal funds to boost their poorer schools.

Williams, of the state education department, said federal nutrition programs would be exempt from any cuts. However, districts that receive payments because they include federal land or military bases, such as San Juan School District, would have that funding cut immediately. That federal chunk amounts to $635,000 in Utah.

Any federal cuts could be a particular burden to Utah districts because the Beehive State has the lowest student funding in the nation: $6,064 per student in 2010. The national per-pupil average was $9,017.

Utah Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said any federal cuts are likely to be "unstructured."

"There will be some impact, for sure," Hillyard said Thursday. "On the state level, we have to react to it."

Utah's public schools are expecting 14,700 new students to enroll in classes next fall, and state school officials have asked lawmakers for $76 million to cover those expenses.

Districts will have time to decide how to absorb any cuts since the next infusion of federal education money is not expected in their coffers until July, meaning the cuts would be calculated into the 2013-14 school year, according to a letter from the federal Education Department to chief state school officers.

"I hope they do come to some type of agreement," Hillyard said. "And that it's phased in so we can adjust, so it's not a dramatic boom and we lose a significant part of our education budget."

In Washington, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Thursday that federal dollars will still be flowing to schools in the coming year when Congress comes to its senses.

"They're going to get the money," Hatch said. "The point is can we get some sense and reason into the economic situation in this country. Right now, it doesn't look like we're going to get much."

rparker@sltrib.com

Twitter@rayutah

Thomas Burr contributed to this report —

Federal money to Utah school districts

Here are 10 Utah school districts, enrollment figures and the percent of their budgets drawn from federal funds.

Ogden School District, 13,408 students, 20.5 percent

Salt Lake City School District, 25,447 students, 19.5 percent

Provo City School District, 13,769 students, 16.3 percent

Granite School District, 70,595 students, 15.7 percent

Weber County School District, 30,900 students, 12.8 percent

Davis County School District, 69,689 students, 12.1 percent

Alpine School District, 65, 918 students, 12 percent

Murray City School District, 6,719 students, 11.1 percent

Jordan School District, 48,853 students, 10.2 percent

Canyons School District, 33,678 students, 8.4 percent

Chart created by Education Writers Association; Data from U.S. Census and Jennifer Cohen Kabaker/Federal Education Budget Project for 2009-2010