Dixie Power donates $50K to Washington County schools; school board members discuss budget, employee leave

ST. GEORGE — With a donation of $50,000 made to the Washington County School District Foundation, Dixie Power made an investment in the students at local schools. 

Members of the school board pose with Dixie Power officials and foundation board members, St. George, Utah, June 8, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

The donation – presented at the Tuesday afternoon meeting for the board of education – will go to reading supplies and literacy assistance at local schools and be distributed according to each school’s active participation in the kite festival.

Steven Dunham, communications director for the district and foundation director, said that Dixie Power has given the school district almost $664,000 in cash donations alone over the course of their partnership. Their in-kind donations, including all volunteer hours, well exceed $1.2 million, he said.

“The Dixie Power Kite Festival is specific to literacy in our district,” Dunham said. “This money is divided out to the schools and teachers in our district. Whether it’s reading programs or specialists that assist with reading or specific reading books – all of these things are things that this money funds in our schools.”

Rick Schofield, director of the Dixie Power Kite Festival and foundation chair, spoke to the board alongside LaDel Laub, CEO of Dixie Power. Schofield said that the challenges of a unique year and organization changes made planning the event particularly difficult, but the event ultimately drew record crowds.

School district foundation director Steven Dunham poses with the check alongside Dixie Power CEO LaDel Laub at Tuesday’s meeting, St. George, Utah, June 8, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

“We weren’t sure it was going to come off this year but it did, and it was a resounding success,” Schofield said. “I just have to give kudos to Dixie Power and their employees. We had close to 30,000 attendees that day. We feel pretty confident that we’ll see those trends continue.”

Laub chose to use his time addressing the board to recognize the Dixie Power employees that had contributed their time and effort to the kite festival.

Board President Kelly Blake said, “Dixie Power has been an incredible partner with the district, and amazing things will happen with that money in the classrooms. I just appreciate them so much.”

Proposed 2021-22 Budget

In other news, the district discussed plans to spend $420 million in the coming school year, according to the recently approved proposed budget for 2021-22, which marks an increase of about $5 million more than the final budget for the last school year. 

A handful of citizens and community residents were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, St. George, Utah, June 8, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

At Tuesday’s meeting, Business Administrator Brent Bills presented the latest edition of the proposed budget for public comment and board approval. Besides an impromptu question on whether the district’s debt is fixed or otherwise (it is fixed), no members of the public offered comments on the proposed budget.

“We’re estimating about 68.8% of our budget will go to instruction,” Bills said. “Remember that instruction is very, very narrowly defined, so it’s just classrooms, teachers and instructional supplies. A lot of things like counselors, media and nurses are not included as part of instruction even though they might be doing some instruction.”

Bills said that the maintenance and operation fund, or general fund, covers the cost of day-to-day district operations. The expenses covered by the general fund must be met by annual district revenue, requiring a balanced budget.

Maintenance and operation accounts for approximately $299 million of the annual budget, with debt service, capital projects, food services and student activities contributing to the remaining costs.

“Our capital projects budget goes up and down, and it’s really driven by new construction,” Bills said. “We have a lot of new construction going on, so this year our budget is $58 million. Food service is a program we require to stay in the black. Next year we’ve already announced that it’ll be free lunch all year, and we’ve got that baked in the budget.”

Projected revenue for 2021-22 sits at about $383 million, with an additional $23 million available through other financing sources (such as the sale of assets and bond proceeds). There is a difference of about $14 million between income and expenses, which is more than covered by the surplus fund balance.

The final budget for the 2020-21 school year and the proposed budget for 2021-22 are available online. The proposed budget was accepted unanimously following a motion by board member Craig Seegmiller.

Amendments to Employee Leave Policy

Lyle Cox, executive director of human resources, presented a number of action items and discussion items for the board’s review. Most notably, Cox shared the proposed amendments to the district’s employee leave policy.

Returning to their pre-pandemic seating, the Washington County school board members discuss items on the meeting agenda, St. George, Utah, June 8, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Under the current policy, district employees who hold public office and choose to attend meetings or functions that conflict with their work time must use their vacation time or take a leave of absence without pay.

“The initial information we received was that that was just the way it had to be to avoid a conflict,” Cox said. “What we find out now from talking with legal counsel and the attorney general’s office is that we can provide a policy that allows for the employee to pay the cost of their substitute.”

Under the new policy, employees would be eligible for up to two days of leave per month where they receive their regular salary with the cost of the substitute subtracted. Employees whose position directly benefits the public education system can apply for additional days of leave through the Superintendent, though if granted they will remain responsible for the substitute’s pay.

“We used the words ‘mandatory leave’ because there are some situations where elected officers could maybe participate in a grand opening or something that wasn’t a mandatory meeting,” Cox said. “We want to make sure that we’re not getting teachers out of school for that sort of thing.”

As part of the discussion, board member Becky Dunn raised concerns about what constitutes a position that directly benefits the public education system, using state legislators as an example where leave time could be a significant draw on school resources. 

Principal Jennifer Leavitt of Red Mountain Elementary School talks about “what’s right” at her school, St. George, Utah, June 8, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

In addition, Board Member Larene Cox said that many public officials receive a stipend for their work. 

In response, Lyle Cox said that the policy change does mean more money will be spent in paying the educators and district employees than just paying a substitute, but the big reason they proposed the policy was to address the way the current policy discourages employees from seeking office and being more civically engaged.

“It really becomes a disincentive for people to do good things for public education in elected office because they’re penalized for doing it, and we really didn’t think that was in the best interest of the schools,” Lyle Cox said. “When you look at the number of days maybe 10 days a year and take that total amount, that’s a significant reduction for their retirement.”

The board will continue to review amendments to Policy 1330 regarding employee leave, with the plan to vote on the amendments in a future meeting.

The next scheduled meeting is a special summer work meeting planned for June 13.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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