Unexpected increase in education funding passes Legislature as part of 2020-21 budget

Salt Lake Education Association march for students at the Utah Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 28, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Amy Barton, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Following weeks of discussions by both state and local boards of education, the Utah Legislature unanimously passed a modified budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year during special session Thursday that utilizes rainy day funds and targeted budget cuts to offer a much more optimistic outlook, especially for education.

Stock image by Zimmytws/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

According to a statement released by the Utah Legislature on Wednesday, under the proposed budget, education funding would increase by 1.3% overall, not including the enrollment growth included in the base budget.

Prior to this, in preparation for a public education appropriations meeting on May 27, the state Legislature Executive Appropriations Committee requested a draft of recommendations from the Utah State Board of Education for 2%, 5% and 10% cuts. A 10% cut would have caused a $380 million reduction in education funding.

Following the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, a deficit of $93 million in one-time funding and $757 million ongoing funding in the general and education funds in fiscal year 2020-21 were projected.

The current budget proposal includes a 1.8% increase to the weighted pupil unit, in addition to $50 million in enrollment growth funded in the base budget. Additionally, $125 million from the federal CARES Act funding will be allocated to augment online education and access.

Salt Lake Education Association march for students at the Utah Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 28, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Amy Barton, St. George News

The preliminary budget was presented to the appropriations committee Wednesday, and on Thursday, it unanimously passed both the Senate, where it was sponsored by Layton Sen. Jerry Stevenson, and the House, where it was sponsored by Southern Utah Rep. Brad Last.

Aundrea Peterson, communications director for the Utah Senate, told St. George News that the Legislature worked “very hard” to make sure there were no cuts to teacher salary or per pupil spending.

“Everybody was working very hard to keep whole programs where we could and cut budgets where it was more easy, so travel was one of them across the board,” Peterson said. “Raises across the board are on hold, but everyone still has jobs.”

Debbie Cluff, a teacher who started a petition against reductions in educator salaries, teacher supplies and the Teacher Student Success Act funds, told St. George News that this proposed budget comes as a huge win for teachers because those items are not on the proposal for budget cuts.

She started the petition only expecting to receive a couple hundred signatures but ended up getting almost 43,000.

“This is a huge win,” Cluff said. “I really feel that voices were heard, and parents and teachers got what they deserved. We finally were noticed. Our voices were heard, and we’re not getting our salaries cut. They understand that education and teachers are important, and we are making a difference in education in the home and at school.”

St. George firefighters read to students at Paradise Canyon Elementary School in Santa Clara, Utah, March 2, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

The proposed budget also aims to increase social services overall by 5.4%. The Legislature is looking at options to only reduce the state budget by 1.7% during the pandemic after using most of the state’s working rainy day funds.

“We are meticulously making short- and long-term decisions that will sustain the state today while we deal with the uncertainties of tomorrow,” Senate President Stuart Adams said in the Legislature press release. “The goal is to preserve social services programs and keep our commitment to the education community.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson noted on the great impacts of careful planning and preparation of previous state leaders.

“We are beneficiaries of the careful planning and preparation of state leaders before us, and our aim is to continue that tradition,” he said.

The choices we’re making about cuts to the budget are data-driven and are intended to help the state move into a rapid economic recovery. Additionally, we are approaching these decisions with a surgical mindset aiming to protect education funding and our critical social services programs while making important investments to accelerate our growth.

The budget shortfalls resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic made budget adjustments inevitable, the press release said, but added that legislators have carefully reviewed and worked hard to limit or avoid reductions in education funding, social services and essential programs. Between long-term rainy day funds and working rainy day funds, nearly a third of the state’s reserve will be utilized.

According to the statement, Utah is in an enviable position nationally due to the vibrant and diverse economy and record-low unemployment rates it had prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rainy day funds have been built for more than a decade and are allowing for more flexibility with options as legislators finalize the budget.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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