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Utah schools funding boosts don’t always reach classrooms
Legislature » Most of 2% per-pupil increase went toward retirement costs.
First Published Feb 10 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 10 2014 10:52 pm

When lawmakers decided to boost per-pupil spending last year by 2 percent, many Utahns cheered, envisioning that cash raining on teachers and classrooms.

In reality, much of that money was spoken for — by the state retirement system — long before it ever hit schools, a Salt Lake Tribune investigation has found.

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In the Salt Lake City and Alpine school districts, not one cent of the increased student funding made it into classrooms. All of it went to the state retirement system and/or rising health care costs.

It’s a pattern that could repeat this year unless lawmakers find more money per student than what’s so far been proposed.

Gov. Gary Herbert has proposed boosting basic per-pupil funding — known as the weighted pupil unit (WPU) — by 2.5 percent for next school year. It will be up to lawmakers whether to fund that proposal.

But Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association (UEA) president, said 2.5 percent won’t mean new resources.

"We will have nothing," she said. "It will maintain current funding levels."

Jen Jacobs, a fifth-grade teacher at Bell View Elementary in Sandy, said it’s a common misconception that increases to per-pupil spending mean automatic raises for teachers or additional resources for classrooms.

It’s been a topic of debate at her own family’s Sunday dinners, she said.

"People hear that and think, ‘Oh, teachers are going to get a big raise,’ and that’s really not the truth" when it comes to WPU gains, said Jacobs, who also is vice president of the Canyons Education Association. "That’s money that goes toward the increased costs of doing business."

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Diverted ‘pupil’ spending » Lawmakers last year upped the value of the WPU to $2,899 per student from $2,842.

That number doesn’t cover the entire amount Utah spends per pupil, but unlike other pots of money, schools can spend WPU dollars on almost anything. In all, lawmakers put about $166 million in new money toward education for this school year, including through the WPU.

But retirement and health care costs advanced almost as fast — leaving many school districts with little of that additional WPU money in hand.

And Utah still has the nation’s lowest per-pupil funding.

"Regretfully, the cost of doing business continues to go up, so as a whole, when we’re looking at those WPU increases, we’re hoping they offset our cost increases," said Ben Horsley, Granite District spokesman, "and when they do, we’re grateful, and when they don’t, we have to cut programs."

Granite, for example, received $4.9 million in additional WPU money for this school year. But it also had to pay an additional $3.9 million into the state’s retirement system.

The Jordan District found itself in a similar situation. Giving all of its employees 1 percent raises would cost $2.1 million, said district spokesman Steve Dunham.

The district got $3.8 million more through the WPU, but $2.5 million of that went to the state’s retirement system. That left Jordan about $1.3 million, which helped the district open its new Copper Mountain Middle School in Herriman and pay for other needs, said Sandy Riesgraf, a district spokeswoman.

Canyons did give its employees more money this year, but the WPU didn’t come close to covering that expense. The district received an additional $2.7 million from the WPU bump, but had to pay another $1.7 million into retirement.

The $5.2 million for employee raises came largely from local property tax revenue, said Leon Wilcox, the district’s interim business administrator.

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