Utah lawmakers are adding $400 million to the state’s public school budget this year, and maybe more, under a plan unveiled Wednesday.
Included is $121 million to provide a $1,500 one-time bonus for licensed educators. Non-administrative staffers in schools will see a $1,000 bonus, while part-time employees will receive a prorated payment. Lawmakers are hoping to get those bonuses to teachers sometime in February.
The bonus money should be quite welcome for teachers as the average annual median salary for public school educators in Utah is about $54,000, according to Envision Utah.
But teachers in the Salt Lake City School District may be left out.
Many lawmakers have been frustrated that the district remains the lone holdout in returning to in-person classes. On a party-line vote, the Executive Appropriations Committee added a provision prioritizing those bonuses to teachers in districts that offer an in-person classroom option. That would freeze out Salt Lake City unless the district opens classrooms by the start of the 2021 session.
“We should funnel this money to those districts that have had their students in the classroom, or have had the option to be in the classroom,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.Wilson referenced recent reporting from The Salt Lake Tribune that showed students in the Salt Lake City District are failing classes at a much higher rate than in years past.
“We’ve all seen with alarm how some of our kids are falling behind. We want every educator and every custodian and every secretary in the state to receive this bonus,” he said. “We’re just trying to balance the needs of the students and what’s in their best interests at the same time.”
Democrats on the committee, who mostly represent areas of Salt Lake City, pushed back, saying those teachers have also been under immense pressure, even though they’re teaching online.
“I agree that students ought to be in school,” said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City. “But the teachers didn’t make this decision, and I feel they’re being punished for something the school board decided to do.”
The Salt Lake City School District is planning a phased-in return to in-person classes in 2021, beginning with kindergarten and 1st grade the week of January 25. But, that’s still passed the deadline proposed by the committee.
Salt Lake City School District spokesperson Yandary Chatwin disagreed with the committee’s decision to potentially exclude teachers in that district, saying all educators have gone “above and beyond” during the pandemic.
She also indicated the district may look to open in-person classes sooner, but not in reaction to the bonuses.
“With news this week about the prioritization of vaccines for educators, our internal conversations at the district level have turned now to looking at ways to offer an in-person learning option for our secondary students sooner than we expected,” she said.
Chatwin also called it “shocking” that anyone would insinuate that the district’s remote learning efforts haven’t been “worthy of recognition.”
While the bonuses are the flashiest part of the spending package, legislators are also putting significant money toward boosting the long-term funding of Utah’s schools.
During the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers agreed to a 6% increase in the weighted pupil unit, the basic school funding mechanism. That was in exchange for the education community supporting a constitutional amendment allowing some income tax money, once reserved exclusively for education, to go to social services.
The pandemic slammed the economy and in reaction, lawmakers backed away from a planned 6% increase in the spring, slashing it to just 1.8%.
In a June special session, legislators passed a bill promising to restore the remainder of the 6% funding boost over a number of years, contingent on voters approving the constitutional amendment, which they did in November.
But, Utah’s economy is snapping back faster than many anticipated. Instead of gradually restoring the promised increase, legislators decided they had enough funds to do it now. That will cost $140 million.
“I’m almost speechless,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. “This sends such a powerful message. Our schools need this money in the middle of this pandemic.”
Matthews, who has been talking with legislative leadership for months about school funding, was ebullient.
“We entered into a lot of commitments that we’ve kept,” she said. “It’s gratifying to know the legislators are honoring the promises they made as well.”
Another change provides money to cover annual enrollment growth and inflation. Together, they total $90 million.
It’s significant that lawmakers are adding this extra money to Utah’s base budget. In plain terms, that means this is a starting point for the upcoming budget negotiations. If lawmakers find a way to boost education further, it will be on top of this funding.
How this came to be
The plans for this significant funding boost began germinating in October when legislative leaders started to see signs that Utah’s economy was recovering. In November, those indications grew much stronger.
“Speaker [Brad] Wilson first started talking to me about doing something for our teachers last month,” House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said of the bonus plan.
Once he won the November election, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox joined the discussions.
On Wednesday morning, Cox seemingly took credit for the funding boost on social media, tweeting that he and Lt. Gov.-elect Diedre Henderson’s presentation for increasing school funding had been accepted by lawmakers.
That boast ruffled some feathers among lawmakers, and shortly after Cox posted an addendum, noting that legislators were already working on a similar plan when his team approached them.
No matter how the plan came to be, lawmakers felt there’s more than enough credit to go around.
“$400 million in new spending for public education is unprecedented,” said Schultz. “I just want to give credit to everybody for helping this come together.”
Sen. Ann Milner, R-Ogden, added, “I think this is an indication of how we can work together to really be able to support our kids.”