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Utah Lawmakers Increase Funding to Reopen Schools in Fall

When Utah students return to public schools next fall, social distancing is expected to be a major part of the curriculum. (Kzenon/Adobe Stock)
When Utah students return to public schools next fall, social distancing is expected to be a major part of the curriculum. (Kzenon/Adobe Stock)
June 24, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah educators, initially concerned about possible cuts in next year's school budget, got a surprise last week from the normally stingy state Legislature: a funding increase.

With an eye on reopening public schools this fall, the Utah Legislature used a combination of federal CARES Act funds and money from the state's Rainy Day Fund -- and delayed some non-essential programs -- to give educators an increase to work with.

Brad Asay, president of the American Federation of Teachers' Utah chapter, said his group worked closely with lawmakers to make sure schools can safely reopen.

"We're pleased that the state Legislature and lawmakers listened to the community, listened to different organizations that were saying, 'We need to open back up. Please hold education harmless.' And they did listen to that," he said.

The Utah State Board of Education has published basic guidelines for reopening public schools, but will require districts to submit their own, local plans by Aug. 1 for approval.

Asay said legislators found the extra funds for education despite a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall as a side effect of the pandemic. He said they turned a potential disaster for education into a workable budget by increasing what's known as the "weighted pupil unit" -- or funding allocation per student -- by 6%.

"Some programs [will] not be funded, that they could wait for a year," he said. "We're going to use that 6% increase in funding. So, a good chunk of change was able to whittle that down and make up for the shortfall."

Lawmakers also spent about $50 million for new students and $125 million for technology upgrades. Asay said the budget was crafted to help school districts meet the needs of students and teachers in the COVID-19 era.

"Our numbers for COVID over the last several weeks have really gotten high, so we're not sure what's going to happen in the fall, as we open up," he said. "Probably have to go to a hybrid system; there might be some online -- so, they needed to fund that."

He said educators also are looking to Congress to do its part. AFT is backing passage of the HEROES Act, which would provide up to $60 billion in future aid to schools nationwide. The bill was approved by the U.S. House, but is still pending in the Senate.

The text of HB 5011 is online at le.utah.gov, and the HEROES Act is at documentcloud.org.

Disclosure: American Federation of Teachers contributes to our fund for reporting on Education, Health Issues, Livable Wages/Working Families and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Mark Richardson, Public News Service - UT