Bonuses for Utah teachers are coming in March, but substitutes will be left out

At least one senator objects to the exclusion.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This Dec. 18, 2020, file photo shows Jack Legge, 73, substitute teaching in a 2nd grade class at Northlake Elementary in the Tooele School District. Bonus checks going out to teachers will exclude substitutes, legislators said Wednesday.

Lawmakers are aiming to get $1,500 bonus checks into the hands of teachers sometime in March.

But, not everybody will get a check. Substitute teachers are excluded because their numbers aren’t reported to the state, so it’s unknown how many there are, legislators said Wednesday, raising objections from at least one state senator who also teaches public school.

“We’ve relied on long-term subs for a lot of the work that we’ve done in schools this year. It’s been a challenge for a lot of those teachers, but they’ve risen to the occasion,” said Sen. Katherine Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, objecting to the exclusion of substitute teachers.

District office employees who don’t directly work with students on a daily basis are also excluded, as are employees hired through a third-party agency or using federal CARES act dollars.

The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee got their first look at the base budget on Wednesday, which is the starting point for public school funding in the state.

In December, legislative leaders added $400 million to the base budget, including $121 million in one-time cash to give licensed educators in the state a $1,500 bonus check in appreciation for adapting to difficulties in the classroom from the coronavirus pandemic. Other non-administrative school staff would receive $1,000 bonus checks. Part-time employees would see a pro-rated bonus.

Sen. Lincoln Filmore, R-South Jordan, said there would be an opportunity to possibly add more employees into the bonus pool as the bill makes its way through the legislative process, but that would come with a price tag.

“We have a specific amount of money to spend,” he said. “In order to include more people, we would either need to have more money allocated to us or reduce the size of the bonuses so we can include more people.”

Controversy erupted when the bonuses were announced as legislative leaders voted to exclude any school district that did not offer an in-person classroom opportunity for students. That only applied to the Salt Lake City District. The district voted Tuesday to let high school and junior high students return to the classroom by Feb. 8.

Any unspent money from the bonuses would be returned to the state in June.

Also included in the base budget is money to cover student enrollment growth, a change lawmakers made in the 2020 session. Before that, enrollment growth was usually funded at the end of the session. Legislative leaders added $90 million in December to cover enrollment increases and inflation.

But, enrollment this year is lagging behind projections. Enrollment in Utah’s schools dropped by 794 students between 2019 and 2020. Officials are projecting 673,854 students in Utah’s schools next year. That’s an increase of more than 7,200 students from this year, but 1,451 fewer than last year’s projections.

There are a variety of reasons for that, mostly due to the pandemic. More parents are homeschooling while others are keeping younger students out of kindergarten.

It’s only the second time Utah schools have seen an enrollment drop since 1998.