Lawmakers Must Figure Out How to Pay for Just Under 10,000 New Public School Students Next Year

Utah State Capitol 04It’s going to cost Utah about $90 million next year just to pay for the new kids coming into the state’s 41 school districts; top legislators were told Tuesday.

House and Senate leaders, Republicans and Democrats, meeting in the Executive Appropriations Committee, were told that “consensus” numbers show 9,730 new students will be at school doorsteps come fall 2016.

As with every new school year, school administrators, legislative budget staff, and the governor’s office take a census of enrolled students each Oct. 1. That count last month found 633,895 kids in public and charter schools, grades K-12.

That is a growth of 1.9 percent over the year before.

Since the fall of 2005, 123,883 new students have come into the public schools.

Over time, state education officials have gotten excellent at predicting the number of new students coming into schools 12 months in advance.

However, for this past October, officials underestimated the new student growth by around 3,700 kids, out of more than 600,000 in the schools.

Those additional students – not paid for at the time – means that legislators during the upcoming general session will have to find an additional $17 million owed to schools.

Luckily, personal and corporate income taxes are coming in higher than estimated – tens of millions of dollars higher. And since the Utah Constitution dedicates all income taxes to schools, come January’s general session the money should be there, both to fix this year’s school shortfall and next year’s growth in student numbers.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Republicans in the House and Senate take pride each general session in at least providing new money for student growth – or the Weighted Pupil Unit for each child through the state’s equalized Education Fund.

And while Democratic legislators keep asking for more money to go to public schools, Utah remains last place in per-student funding in the nation.

However, Utah’s high school graduation rate, the percent of children reading at grade level, test scores and other measurements of achievement are improving.

In a recent interview, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper said in the 2016 Legislature he expects lawmakers to fully fund student growth and make strides in providing upgraded electronic aides – like laptops or tablets – to more Utah students.

Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the current longest-serving member of the Legislature, has been watching state budgets for decades.

He noted that while the state public/charter school funding program provides a WPU for each student enrolled, and for years legislators have budgeted more money to cover the cost of new student growth, in reality when an elementary, junior high or high school gets a new student, the school’s fixed costs are not adjusted accordingly.

“If you have a district with 1,000 students, and the new year you get ten more, and you get more WPU,” said Hillyard, the district doesn’t build a new schoolroom nor necessarily hire a new teacher.

Instead, the district historically spends the new money on teacher salary increases; supply increased costs and such, said Hillyard.

For years, he has wondered if there is not a better way to pay for the “new” kids when, in fact, the schools are not seeing any real additional cost for many of the new children.

Legislative Fiscal Analyst Ben Leishman, who presented the report, said way back in 1990 the Legislature conducted a wide-ranging study of the Minimum School Fund – which each year disburses the WPUs based on last year’s enrollment.

That study recommended that the Legislature not increase any district’s WPU for new students until the district saw at least 1 percent student growth.

“That recommendation was never implemented,” said Leishman.

Hughes said it should be recognized that when a growing district sees an influx of new kids – mainly through new residential housing bringing in young families – there is no “automatic” point where a district builds a new elementary school – or even a new high school.

Rather, under the current Utah charter school program, private enterprise/educators see a need and start a new charter school.

That’s what’s happened in his Draper area, said Hughes, where three new charter elementary schools have been started in recent years – and the Canyons School District has not built new elementary schools for those kids.

Hillyard said he imagines the current WPU reimbursement program for growth in new students will be revisited in the 2016 Legislature.