Lawmakers threaten funding cuts if Salt Lake City schools don’t reopen as promised

SB107 passed through committee with support from Republicans and some parents.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this file photo, Lah Hser, left, stands next to her son, Saw Sunday, and his two friends, Ehler Pweh and Poe Snay, as they sign up to for online classes at Clayton Middle School. The Salt Lake City School District is planning to reopen in person starting in February 2021. But if it doesn't follow through, the Legislature has threatened to cut funding with a bill passed in committee on Jan. 20, 2021.

If Salt Lake City kids don’t return to classrooms in person next month as planned, the district could lose more students and significant funding under a proposal backed by Utah lawmakers Wednesday.

SB107, which passed out of committee on a 5-2 vote, specifically targets Salt Lake City School District — the only one in the state that has continued with all remote learning this year during the pandemic. The measure threatens that any district that doesn’t reopen with a face-to-face option by Feb. 8 will immediately lose the per-pupil state funding for students who transfer elsewhere, including private schools.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, the bill’s sponsor, said it’s meant to keep the pressure on Salt Lake City until it follows through with opening its doors.

“The idea is if the parent does not have a choice, that the money would follow them to a school that is providing an in-classroom opportunity,” he added. “I hope that we get those kids back in school soon — not all of them, but the ones who want to be there.”

The proposal, though, was heard the day after Salt Lake City’s school board had already yielded to pressure from the Legislature and agreed late Tuesday night to reopen its junior high and high schools on Feb. 8, with students coming in two days a week. Board members had also previously voted to have elementary students begin returning for face-to-face instruction on Jan. 25.

To some lawmakers and a few individuals who commented during the bill hearing, that made continuing on with the legislation now feel vindictive. Especially, they noted, because it doesn’t apply to online charters or other districts that have some schools operating virtually, such as San Juan County School District.

“It is clearly designed to bully one particular district,” said Heidi Matthews, the president of the Utah Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state.

Ashley Anderson, a parent and educator, called it “needlessly punitive.” And Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, suggested it was akin to a voucher system and being used “as leverage to coerce local school districts” when the state has provided little other direction for educating during the pandemic.

Melissa Ford, the president of Salt Lake City’s school board, encouraged the Senate Education Committee to vote the bill down and let the board move forward with reopening as it has conceded to do.

Ford argued that the state has long encouraged local decision making and never issued any requirement for districts to reopen in person. Salt Lake City, she said, chose to stay online at the beginning of the year to keep students and teachers safe amid rising coronavirus cases and deaths. That includes a paraprofessional in the district who died last week after coming in to teach students in person in small groups, though it’s not clear exactly where he contracted the virus.

Additionally, Ford stressed, the district had originally wanted to continue remotely until all staff could get both doses of the vaccine. But it negotiated with the state to return now with teachers getting just their first shot.

“I know this issue is complicated,” Ford said, “but I believe we are doing our best to make the best decisions for our students.”

Weiler told reporters that he appreciates the district’s Tuesday vote and doesn’t intend “to take money away” from Salt Lake City with his proposal. But he wants a mechanism in place if the district backs out of or postpones reopening. For now, he plans to hold the bill and not advance it further if there’s no need.

The senator, whose district includes the Rose Park neighborhood in Salt Lake City, said he’s heard from many parents who want an in-person option for their kids. Some of them have filed a lawsuit to push for that, but a ruling from the court is still pending. This bill, Weiler added, felt like a last resort to many.

“They’ve been turned down for months and months and months, and there’s no other appeal for them,” he said.

Mary Catherine Perry, a mother of kids in the district, said during the committee meeting: “I wish we didn’t need a legislative remedy. I wish the board prioritized student needs on its own.”

Along with parents, Weiler said he has also been worried to see a major increase in failing grades in Salt Lake City School District during virtual learning. Roughly 4,000 Salt Lake City secondary students received one or more F’s or incompletes in the first quarter. That’s 1,500 more students failing a class than last year. And elementary students’ grades were even worse.

Online instruction, he said, doesn’t work for all students. And they need the option to learn in-person if that’s where they can get the best education. Anyone who wants to stay online can also do so.

“That’s my concern, is that we’re going to lose a generation of kids,” Weiler said, calling elementary school grades, in particular, “formative years” that determine a student’s trajectory for education.

The senator calls the concept in his bill “backpack funding,” tying a student’s portion of state money to the district where they transfer. That already happens, but there’s about a year delay with shifting what’s called the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, based on annual enrollment counts.

And Weiler’s bill would also extend the money to accredited private schools, where it doesn’t currently apply, essentially offering a voucher of state funding for students to attend.

The current WPU is about $4,000 per kid. If a student transfers to another public district, that district gets half of that money from Salt Lake City. But if they transfer to a private school, under the bill, Salt Lake City has to provide either 75% of the cost of the private school tuition, or up to three times the WPU ($12,000) — whichever is higher.

Weiler said he’s not encouraging kids to transfer to private school, but rather to any school that addresses their needs. And most of those who have already left Salt Lake City School District this year because of the all-online learning model, he noted, have gone to neighboring public districts. Roughly 1,200 kids have transferred out of Salt Lake City, with 800 going to Granite School District, according to data from the Utah Board of Education.

They can transfer, countered Sen. Kathleen Riebe, a teacher and Democrat from Cottonwood Heights, because of the state’s open enrollment policy. Parents, she said, already have the option to leave if they don’t like what Salt Lake City is doing. There’s no reason to add any extra punishment, she said.

She supported Ford’s push for local control, saying that Salt Lake City chose to give students continuity with staying online while other districts, including Granite School District where she works, have had to open and close with outbreaks. “We need to respect that,” Riebe said.

Riebe and Kitchen were the two “no” votes. The five “yes” votes fell on party lines, with all Republican lawmakers on the committee supporting the bill. Some said transferring schools is an option only available to those with resources and that all districts should offer an equitable education regardless of location.

The bill also passed through the Senate on second reading Thursday. It will now be circled.

The measure also comes after lawmakers earlier threatened to exclude teachers in Salt Lake City School District from a $1,500 bonus this year. The extra money was offered for educating kids during the pandemic and Salt Lake City was being kept out as long as it stayed online.

Senate President Stuart Adams also called out the district in his opening day speech at the Legislature on Tuesday. And he added Wednesday that there was “nothing punitive that I see in this bill.”

—Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this story.