Utah schools see safety measures approved but receive less funding than they hoped for from the Legislature

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students work on reading comprehension at Lincoln Elementary in Salt Lake City.

Utah lawmakers debated fewer education bills this session than in any of the past five years.

But there were more measures on school safety proposed and passed than ever before. A controversial proposal to allow Utah Board of Education candidates to run under a political party unexpectedly squeaked by in the last hours. And, with a budget held hostage until the final week, public schools found they weren’t allocated as much money as anticipated in a big surplus year.

So, while the overall number of classroom and campus bills may have dipped, many were left reeling from what they saw as a surprisingly outsized impact.

“This has been a whirlwind, especially in the last week,” Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said.

The increased attention on safety followed one of the most horrific school shootings in the nation’s history in Florida last year, as well as the murder of a student at the University of Utah last fall. Reflecting that, the four proposals approved this year focus on protecting students on college campuses and providing more training for teachers at K-12 schools.

A measure from Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, would require Utah’s public colleges to craft plans detailing how campus officers should respond to cases of sexual assault and relationship violence. It was spurred by U. student Lauren McCluskey, who reported to the school’s police that she was being harassed by a man she briefly dated before he later killed her.

Another bill would add college professors to the list of trusted adults who, under Utah law, face steeper criminal penalties if they are convicted of having sexual contact with children age 17 or younger.

Two safety proposals for public elementary, middle and high schools received some funding, but far from their original amounts. A $32 million proposal that would help Utah schools in hiring more counselors passed with about $20 million designated. And a measure that would appoint a statewide public-safety liaison to oversee schools and require teachers to take more lockdown trainings was limited to $1 million. That’s down from nearly $100 million that would’ve gone toward structural improvements, including more locks and better cameras.

Still, those are among the most substantial moves toward stopping a would-be shooter and focusing on the mental health of students that the state has considered in recent years. “This is absolutely the best place to start,” Matthews said.

Meanwhile, a bill that would prohibit people from openly carrying a gun within 500 feet of any K-12 school in Utah was defeated in committee. As was a measure to overhaul the Utah Board of Education, reducing the number of members and requiring all seats be appointed by the governor.

But another attempt to change the board — a subject that has come up annually in some form — succeeded, in part, Thursday. The contentious proposal would allow partisan elections for the Utah Board of Education. It will likely be immediately challenged.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, passed by one vote on a 38-37 count with all Democrats opposed. It comes three years after the Legislature approved another bill to do the same thing — but which has been held up by a lawsuit alleging that it violated the state constitution. A final decision from the Utah Supreme Court is still pending.

“Yes, it’s being challenged by the courts,” acknowledged Rep. Brad Last, the House sponsor of SB236. “But we did not mean to suggest that you have to run on a partisan ticket,” he added, noting a candidate could file as unaffiliated.

The budget deal, reached late in the session, left many teachers disappointed. The budget plan would increase education spending per student by a total of $128 million this year. That matches what the governor requested but falls about $50 million short of what the Utah Board of Education had sought.

The money for education could be sliced even further if a proposed constitutional amendment comes back in the interim that would open up the state’s income tax, earmarked for public schools, to services for those in need.

“We came out fairly well considering the conversations around tax reform earlier in the week,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson on Thursday.

The pupil spending is still a small enough bump, at about 4 percent, that it likely will not take the state out of last place in the nation for that funding.

“It’s not going to be enough to move the needle on our teacher shortage or make a difference in class sizes,” added Matthews. “This amount of funds is a start, but it’s not the historic investment that we were hoping for this year.”

Other bills passed to fund more computer science classes in schools statewide, to incentivize more students to take standardized tests by offering extra credit and to clarify what instructors can say about contraception when teaching sex education. The conservative advocacy group Utahns Against Common Core opposed the latter two, suggesting the testing measure would punish kids who opt-out and the sex education proposal would “expose kids who are not ready yet,” said Christel Swasey, a grass-roots organizer with the group.

One of the biggest higher education measures to be approved would create a new state-funded scholarship to provide students from low-income families two years of free tuition at a public Utah college.

David Buhler, Utah’s commissioner of higher education, said: “We think that is groundbreaking.”