Lawmakers considering big cuts to Utah’s public education budget due to COVID-19 pandemic

Utah Capitol 11

Utah’s public schools could see up to a 10 percent cut in proposed funding this summer under a plan considered Wednesday by a legislative budget subcommittee — cuts of $385 million.

The public education legislative budget subcommittee discussed cuts Wednesday of 2 percent, 5 percent and 10 percent, listed at this site (committee members passed the 2 percent cuts with a few minor adjustments made by the committee). The subcommittee will meet again later this week or early next week to consider cuts of 5 percent and 10 percent.

Legislative bosses have called meetings this week of the budget subcommittees, which are pouring over the proposed 2020-2021 fiscal year, starting July 1.

The cuts come because of the coronavirus’ shutdown of the state’s economy, which in turn are drastically harming current and future tax collections.

When lawmakers ended their general session in mid-March, public education budgets were brimming with new money — a 6 percent increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit, the basic state-funded per-pupil spending formula, with an extra $100 million in additional spending, among other enhancements. Overall, nearly 10 percent more in funding over the current year’s schools budget, which ends June 30.

But the coronavirus ended all of that.

Tuesday, an influential legislator, who asked not to be identified, told that with a little luck the public education budget for next year won’t be actually cut from this year’s base spending plan — while other state budgets would be.

There just won’t be any new money for schools, except to pay for student growth numbers — which for the first time during the 2020 Legislature was placed into the “base budget” by lawmakers before any add-ons were accepted by legislators.

While other state programs will actually see budget cuts from this year, this person said — even some programs eliminated — schools would continue mostly under the current year’s spending program with a few adjustments coming — schools just wouldn’t be getting a nearly 10 percent spending increase that the original FY 2021 budget called for.

“That is actually a win” for schools, he said. Public education officials “were so good with us” during the 2020 Legislature that politically speaking the GOP majority lawmakers don’t want to harm schools badly.

He was referring to the Utah Education Association, the main teacher union, and the associations of school principals and administrators and local school boards, and the State Board of Education, backing a plan to amend the Utah Constitution this coming November.

That amendment, which the UEA agreed not to oppose — the other groups supporting — would add programs for the disabled and children to the current income tax earmarking for school programs.

That change will allow lawmakers and the governor to avoid serious internal tax restrictions for at least a few more years — perhaps even a decade — and so giving time to find a solution to the state’s dwindling sales tax collections.

But Wednesday, speaking virtually, Heidi Matthews, president of the UEA, hinted that if school budgets are drastically cut then the union may not support the amendment in the November election. She asked the committee: “Is it prudent” to move ahead with the amendment if school budgets are cut way back?

In any case, Wednesday the Public Education Appropriation Subcommittee heard lengthy presentations from their own budget staff about what could be cut, and what it would mean to public education. Also included in the above link are suggested cuts by various associations and groups.

By mid-June, the Legislature and governor will have updated revenue estimates for FY 2021, which starts July 1.

Then the Executive Appropriations Committee made up of leaders in the House and Senate, both political parties, will meet and take votes on recommendations from the eight budget subcommittees.

A special session will be called, and the GOP caucuses in the House and Senate will make the final budget-cutting decisions, based on the subcommittees’ recommendations.

Wednesday, State Board of Education Chairman Mark Huntsman said for weeks the board has been sailing in uncertain stormy seas, not being able to see what is ahead. But the board met several times and made recommendations on $380 million in cuts.

“We are adjusting our sails,” he said. But we will sail on and make education happen for all students, he added.

State School Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, at times her voice cracking with emotion, said, “This is a hard day” as proposed cuts seem to be real.

On the last day of the general session, she said, public education officials met in the Capitol Rotunda to praise $403 million in new education funding.

“We had (money) for new initiatives,” like extended day kindergarten, and safety for schools — all gone now.

“We hardly had time for cheering” before the coronavirus impacts were felt, with a “soft closure” of schools for the remainder of this school year. “It was whiplash,” she said.

She hopes that the cuts that may be coming for next year “are one-time cuts” and won’t be coming when the economy recovers.

House public education budget committee co-chair Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said any cuts to education “impacts student learning.” That is a given.

But the subcommittee had to come up with the 2 percent ($76 million in cuts); 5 percent ($233 million); and 10 percent ($385 million).

At the 10 percent cut level, the WPU would be cut by 2 percent, or a total of $66 million.

Generally speaking, the WPU translates into teacher pay, which is set by each of the 41 individual school boards.