Utah’s GOP House speaker disapproves of teacher walkout planned for Friday

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Teachers from the Salt Lake School District hold a rally about teacher pay at Innovations High School on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said he disapproves of the planned Friday walkout by Salt Lake City teachers — who will march to the Capitol to ask for increased education funding — suggesting there are “more productive ways to express concern.”

“We encourage the teachers to consider alternatives,” the Republican leader urged in a statement this week, “including meeting with legislative leadership and reviewing actual funding proposals.”

He said, too, that his door is “always open to productive discussions,” but no educators have reached out to him with their requests. “I’m going to take a deep breath because this is very frustrating to me,” he later told reporters.

Wilson’s unexpected reproach was immediately countered by the state teachers union and the Salt Lake Education Association, which represents staff in the Salt Lake City School District and is organizing the rally. The association’s president, James Tobler, said he and hundreds of teachers from across the city and county have been at the Legislature this session. They’ve sat in on committee meetings on student mental health, written to lawmakers about needing more substitutes and begged for smaller class sizes.

“We feel like our voices aren’t being heard,” Tobler said. “So we’re escalating our campaign. We feel this is a positive way to get our message out there.”

Tobler frames the walkout as a “walk for” students. And he doesn’t plan to cancel it in the face of pressure from state leaders. In light of the discussion, Senate President Stuart Adams and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also released statements, both insisting that education is a priority. The state continues to hold last place in the nation for per-pupil spending.

The Salt Lake Education Association would like to see that change and, during its rally, will be calling for a 6% increase. The union’s funding priorities are hiring more counselors and substitutes for schools and reducing class sizes for teachers.

Because so many are expected to participate, the Salt Lake City School District will hold half-days at all its schools. Even with most schools on an early dismissal schedule on Fridays, Wilson criticized that as an “unnecessary disruption” to student learning and pledged to help administrators, if needed.

The march will start at 1 p.m. at the Federal Building, 125 S. State St., and meander up to the Capitol, where the Salt Lake City teachers will join forces with members of the Utah Education Association. Teachers are encouraged to wear “red for ed” to show solidarity.

“Our students and teachers face significant challenges,” UEA President Heidi Matthews said in a statement Wednesday. And addressing those will require “a sustained funding effort over many years.”

Both Wilson and Adams suggested that allocations for education have been at a “record high” over the last five to 10 years in the state and include an increase of about $200 million each year. Adams said it’s a “top annual focus” in each budget. And Wilson noted, “The facts show that commitment.”

The House leader pointed to funding for the SafeUT app focused on student safety and the Teacher and Student Success Act for increasing educator salaries. Wilson also promised there would be a “significant contribution” to per student spending this year. But early budget proposals put the increase at $136 million — or 4% — which aligns with previous years, is less than the governor requested (at 4.5%) and is still not enough to knock Utah out of last place.

Even Herbert acknowledged that Thursday during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah. He said: “I don’t think that it will. … We’re not top 10 in funding, but we’re getting great results.”

Tobler called out that logic. “We hear from lawmakers that our teachers are great and they do more with less funding. But at what cost?” he asked.

In Salt Lake City School District, he said, there are 392 unfilled substitute positions. There are also 95 open spots for secretaries, tutors and custodians. Some teachers are cleaning their own classrooms because of those shortages, he said.

Many students don’t want to become teachers because of the low pay and many educators are leaving the field because of the high demands on the job. There’s a serious shortage.

There have also certainly been recent and more specific issues, Tobler said, in Salt Lake City School District, where the superintendent has resigned, a popular principal was fired and teachers walked out during salary negotiations.

Herbert questioned whether that “turmoil” led to the planned march.

“I don’t want to conflate what we’re doing with education as a state with some of the turmoil we see in Salt Lake City. That’s a different issue there,” the governor said. “Whatever the problem is in Salt Lake City district — a change in leadership, people resigning or being replaced, turmoil and division — we hope they get that resolved.”

But Tobler said that while the union has become more active this past year, the issues in the district are being experienced in schools statewide. “This rally is the beginning of more conversations about what our schools need and what our teachers are dealing with everywhere," he said.