Lawmakers Grapple with School Budget Forecasting

Not that Utah public schools don’t need the money, but over the last six years the state education budgeters over-estimated the number of new students, under-estimated the amount the property tax will bring to the tune of $111.1 million of surplus tax.

Some years state school officials/state budgeters have done a better job in estimating than in other years, a report presented to legislative leaders Tuesday afternoon shows.

Such “non-lapsing balances” are actually seen in some state department budgets, previous studies by the Legislative Fiscal Analysts Office have found.

And it is always better to end a fiscal year with extra money than it is to run deficits – requiring program/staff cutbacks.

Still, the goal of state budgeters – both in the executive and legislative branches – is to come in pretty close to actual tax collections and expenditures.

For the 2015 fiscal year, which ended this past June 20, the school surplus balance was only $5.6 million – a near miss.

But in fiscal 2013 budget experts missed public school funding by a plus $33.5 million.

Now, the state’s spending – between the 41 separate school districts and the state’s own school fund — $3.5 billion.

The state’s share – the Education Fund – is $2.6 billion.

If education budgeters are off by $25 million in overall education spending in the state, that is only a miss by 0.7 percent.

If the state is off by $25 million, that is only 0.9 percent.

And Tuesday, legislative budget bosses told lawmakers that in the future they hope education balances can be on the upside, but not more than $25 million.

Still, legislative budget staff believe education officials can do better.

It’s important that education budgeters bring their margins of error down.

That’s because the 2015 Legislature passed SB97 – a new law that sets up a state equalization fund for school capital outlays – new school buildings and maintenance and expansion of old buildings.

For years, Utah has had an education operational equalization program – under the former Uniform School Fund.

That guarantees that every child in the state, no matter where he or she lives, in a “rich” school district or a “poor” one, gets the same cash allotment for his or her education each year.

But Utah did not have a similar equalization fund for school buildings and other capital items.

So, for example, a “rich” school district like Park City could spend a lot more on its school buildings and facilities than a “poor” district, like Nebo.

The state’s Education Fund is fed by the state’s personal and corporate income taxes.

But each school district’s capital outlay funds draw from district property taxes.

“It would be a good idea to have some surplus” in the state Education Fund, said Executive Appropriations Committee chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

If during the school year the new SB97 property tax equalization fund falls short, then legislators can come into a special session to allocate more money to it, or the State Board of Education will have to reduce the Weighted Pupil Unit slightly to make up the difference.

Either way, it’s hoped that can be avoided by estimating district property tax take and the number of new students in more accurate ways.

What will happen to the fund before the 2016 Legislature?

Maybe there will be an extra $40 million, Legislative budgeters guess today.