Why Utah Republicans are standing firm on their teacher bonus plan, leaving Salt Lake City out

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox did not object to withholding bonuses from districts without in-person classes.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bonneville Elementary School, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

Utah’s legislative leaders turned cash bonuses for teachers into a cudgel to pressure the Salt Lake City School District to return to class and the move did not catch everyone off guard.

House and Senate Republicans were informed of the forthcoming bonuses during a closed caucus meeting Tuesday. The plan to possibly cut Salt Lake City out of the bonuses sprung from those conversations after members vented their frustrations that the district was the lone holdout in returning to in-person class instruction.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, says what he heard from his members convinced him that using the bonus money as both a carrot and stick was the right move.

“There’s deep concern and frustration that the needs of the students in the Salt Lake City School District are not being met,” Wilson said Thursday.

Legislative leaders voted Wednesday to approve a one-time $1,500 bonus for licensed educators in Utah as a thank you for their efforts during the pandemic. But, they also added “intent language” to the appropriation that excludes teachers and staff in districts that don’t offer an in-person classroom option by the time the Legislature begins its general session on Jan. 19. As it stands, that only applies to Salt Lake City schools.

Wilson, along with many other legislators, thinks the online-only approach is not working, and may be detrimental to students, and he’s standing behind the decision.

“There are districts and teachers around the state that have figured out a way to make this work,” he said.

The bonus money is part of a massive $400 million boost in education spending lawmakers added to the base budget for next year. If for some reason, lawmakers are unable to complete the overall budget by the end of the session, or the governor vetoes the end-of-session budget, the base budget remains in place to ensure funding.

Unless the dynamics change, the issue will end up on the desk of Gov.-elect Spencer Cox shortly after he takes office in January. Lawmakers are required to pass the base budget bills by Jan. 28.

So, where does Cox come down on holding the bonuses hostage?

A spokesperson for Cox declined to comment Thursday saying in an email they would prefer to “sit this one out.”

But, Cox and his team have not raised any objections to House leaders.

“I know that his staff was aware of what we’re doing, and I was under the impression that they were supportive of what we’ve done here in the past 24 hours,” Wilson said. He added that he has not directly spoken to Cox about the issue.

Cox’s public silence may be a strategic calculation. Lawmakers still must introduce, debate and pass the base budget bills before they wind their way to his desk, and he may be banking on one side or the other relenting, which would save him from making a difficult decision.

Much of the online outrage has been driven by a simple question — is it fair to withhold these bonuses from teachers who did not make the decision to hold classes virtually rather than in person? That decision was made by the school board.

John Caywood, who works as a student support assistant at Wasatch Elementary in Salt Lake City, says teachers who hold class virtually are working just as hard, maybe even harder, than they did before the pandemic.

“I see almost all of the teachers on a weekly basis at some point or other, and they seem to be putting in an awful lot of hours, whether that’s here in the building or if they are set up to do their work from home,” he says. “They’re probably working more hours now than they have before.”

Caywood understands there’s a perception that these teachers somehow have an easier job without in-person classes, but he rejects that.

“It’s not as though they have been able to fly from their responsibility as teachers,” he said. “That’s simply untrue.”

But, lawmakers are having a difficult time squaring that view with the reality that elementary students in the district have been failing classes at triple the rate of last year. The number of failing middle and high school students has risen as well.

“I am getting a ton of email right now from parents in the Salt Lake City School District thanking us for finally listening to them,” Wilson said. “They say their kids are paying a big price. I don’t make decisions based on how much email I get, but this just reinforces that we’re doing the right thing here.”

This bonus controversy might be moot come January. Salt Lake City School District issued a statement saying they are reconsidering their slow phasing in of in-person class in light of vaccine news. Teachers are expected to be able to get the vaccine in mid to late January.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, was one of two Democrats who voted in favor of the measure despite the added provision to withhold the bonuses.

“I think it’s wrong to punish the Salt Lake district because administrators there came to a different decision about their educational options,” he said. “This struck me as being quite heavy-handed. I can see this as the Legislature sending a message.”

However, King said the overall funding increase for education was an important one to support.