Utah senators vote to give more money to some school districts, despite concerns it means less money for all

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, is sponsoring SB145 to equalize the funding of Utah school districts.

If a family moves from Draper to Riverton, the money spent by public schools to educate each of their children drops by roughly $1,200, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said Thursday.

And even larger shifts follow a family that moves from Moab to Blanding, he said, or from Park City to the unincorporated areas of Summit County.

“If you live in Salt Lake City and then move to North Salt Lake, that’s three miles,” Fillmore said. “Your education funding goes down by $2,100 per student.”

Those disparities could start to shrink under a bill that earned the preliminary approval of Utah senators on Thursday.

The Senate voted 20-6 to advance SB145, sponsored by Fillmore, which would set aside $36 million from the state Education Fund to create a funding floor for the state’s most cash-strapped schools.

The bill also calls for funding to help school districts with at-risk students and busing costs.

“Your zip code should not determine the value of your education,” Fillmore said.

At issue is the ability of school districts to raise money through local property taxes. While state education funding is distributed on an equal, per-student basis, school coffers are supplemented by local revenue that varies depending on the demographic, geographic and economic profile of a particular area.

But any carve-out from the Education Fund reduces the per-student money available to all schools, a “reality check” emphasized Thursday by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

A draft education budget released last week included a 3 percent increase in per-student spending. But Hillyard said he has heard from school administrators that 2.5 percent is needed to cover inflationary and operational costs.

If funding for equalization and other programs results in a per-student bump of less than 2.5 percent, Hillyard said, then many school districts would actually see a relative loss as costs exceed investment.

“You’re going to have school districts who don’t benefit with this,” he said, “who will have the struggle of paying the ongoing cost of keeping their schools open.”

Hillyard voted in favor of SB145, and said he had no objection to Fillmore’s request for funding. But the question, he said, is how the state pays for it in the face of other needs.

“We have X number of dollars and we can spend it so many ways,” Hillyard said. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”

A similar bill by Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, would fund equalization by raising revenue through a property tax freeze. Currently, tax rates float down to remain revenue neutral as property values rise, but HB293 would capture $36 million in new funding during its first year and $125 million by 2022.

Last’s bill has yet to receive an initial committee hearing, and there are two weeks left in the 2018 legislative session.

Terry Shoemaker, associate executive director of the Utah School Boards Association, said his organization supports Last’s bill but has not taken a position on Fillmore’s bill.

“There is support from our body for equalization where the revenue source comes as explained with Rep. Last's bill,” Shoemaker said.

Thursday’s Senate debate included a tongue-in-cheek remark by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, that the bill was an attempt to “soak the rich” through socialism, and most of the chamber’s Democratic members opposed the bill.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said Utah’s public education system is socialist by design, and because of that it’s wrong for the Legislature to allow funding inequities to continue.

“There is one thing worse than socialism — inequitable socialism,” Stephenson said. “That’s what we have in this state today.”

An additional vote of the Senate is required before SB145 can move to the House for consideration.


Sets a statewide funding floor for school districts to even out the funding disparities over time between areas with high and low property-tax values. - Read full text

Current Status:

Filed Law Introduced in Senate Senate Committee Senate passage House Committee House passage Governor's OK

Feb. 12: Should cash-strapped Utah school districts get extra money from the state?

Some Utah school districts are home to bustling retail economies, ski resorts and sky-high property values, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore said Monday, while others have minimal commerce and vast swaths of tax-exempt federal lands.

District boundaries were drawn when Utah was largely agrarian, Fillmore said, but over time, those lines have let some schools reap significant gains with comparatively low property-tax rates, while others struggle financially.

“If you’re in the Tintic or Cache or Ogden school district, your ability to generate revenue through a local tax effort is nowhere near what it is in Wasatch County, Uintah County and Salt Lake County,” said, Fillmore, R-South Jordan.

So for the third year, the lawmaker is sponsoring legislation aimed at putting all Utah’s school districts on what he says will be a level playing field.

His bill, SB145, would set aside $36 million from the state’s Education Fund — with additional amounts each year — to set and then incrementally lift a statewide minimum funding level for districts.

The measure drew unanimous support Monday from the Senate Education Committee and now heads to debate in the full Senate.

‘Size of the pie’

Schools on the lower end of the state’s funding spectrum would see an immediate boost to their budgets, and eventually, all but the wealthiest Utah school districts would benefit.

But extra funding for some means less funding for all, a perennial point of contention in a state that already ranks last in the nation for per-student spending.

“It’s all about the size of the pie,” said Lisa Nentl-Bloom, executive director of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t deal with the overall aspect that we’re still underfunded.”

Fillmore acknowledged the concern, but added that if Utah schools are underfunded as a whole, then its poorest districts are particularly hard hit. To ignore funding inequities that stem from local property taxes is to place “handcuffs” on schools in low-value areas, he said.

“That’s something that needs to change for the sake of our teachers and our kids,” Fillmore said.

Nentl-Bloom said the UEA supports the concept behind Fillmore’s bill, but is concerned about using existing money for equalization.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Bradley G. Last, R-Hurricane (left), and Rep. Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, as seen on Jan. 30, 2018. Last is sponsoring HB293, which would raise money for equalizing funding among Utah schools by freezing property tax rates as property values rise.

The union, she said, prefers HB293, sponsored by Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, which would generate new money for equalization by freezing statewide property tax rates. State law currently requires property taxes to remain revenue neutral by floating down as property values rise. If those tax rates are frozen, as Last’s bill proposes, steady increases in statewide property values could lead to significant new money for education equalization.

Fillmore said he’s hopeful that his and Last’s bills will both pass, but he is running his legislation independent of HB293, which has yet to be released by the House Rules Committee.

SB145 will also have to compete on Capitol Hill for funding, going up against other legislative priorities. Last week, House Republicans discussed the possibility of earmarking roughly $40 million in this year’s budget to give a $2,000 pay hike to every public-school teacher in the state.

Various media outlets misreported that proposal as a $6,200 raise for teachers, failing to account for an existing $4,200 salary adjustment already being paid to Utah’s educators.

A draft budget discussed Monday by the Public Education Appropriations committee included $31 million for Fillmore’s bill, as well as a 3 percent increase in per-student spending.

Final state revenue numbers are expected in the coming weeks, and typically result in additional funds available for education programs.

Where credit is due

Some lawmakers have voiced frustration that the Legislature has not received appropriate credit and appreciation for its school funding efforts in recent years — a sentiment repeated Monday by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

“Nobody applauded the Legislature for making an incredible 9 percent [increase],” he said.

The Utah Constitution requires that all income tax revenue be appropriated to public schools, including higher education.

Lawmakers may, and do, supplement school funding with sales tax and other revenues, and have authority over whether to earmark money for specific priorities — such as technology, salary increases or equalization — or to provide administrators with unrestricted cash to spend at their discretion.

Unrestricted funding typically takes the form of the Weighted Pupil Unit, or WPU, a per-student budgeting mechanism that is used to award money to schools on an equalized basis. Once appropriated, the bulk of WPU funding is used for personnel costs, including salaries and benefits for teachers.

After a large increase to per-student spending last year, several Utah school districts approved pay raises for teachers in what became known as the “salary wars.”

“If the WPU is adequately funded, districts have flexibility to target the needs they have in the districts — including salary,” said Sara Jones, government relations director for UEA.

Stephenson said the state needs to move away from treating WPU increases as the measure of lawmakers’ commitment to public education. Focusing on per-student spending, he said, has allowed funding inequities and other important issues to go overlooked for years.

“We’re basically saying we really don’t care about the quality of instruction in Nebo and Tooele,” Stephenson said, “because we have a high quality of instruction in Salt Lake and Park City.”