Legislature looking at education funding changes that would benefit local districts
SALT LAKE CITY—The Utah Legislature convened just over two weeks ago with a record 1,500 bills to consider.
Despite the daunting task before them, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund (R-Monroe), said legislators are making progress.
“At this point two weeks into the session, we’ve got about 500 bills that are already numbered and filed and sorted through the system,” he said. “A number of those are just a short way away from where they can be passed.”
One of the bills that has garnered a lot of attention this session is SB80, which would raise the funding floor for Utah’s poorest school districts. The bill earned preliminary Senate approval Monday.
If it passes another Senate vote, SB80 will be sent to the House for consideration.
The effects of the bill could be especially pronounced in the South Sanpete School District, which has the lowest assessed tax valuation per student of any district in the state. The assessed valuation includes residential, commercial and centrally assessed properties (which are mines, utilities and railroad property).
South Sanpete’s assessed valuation per student is $174,966, less than a third the state average of $565,273 and less than one twelfth the figure in Utah’s wealthiest school district, Park City, which has an assessed valuation of nearly $2.4 million per student.
North Sanpete School District’s assessed valuation is also low, at $268,899 per student.
For years, the state has lifted poor school districts to a minimum level of funding per pupil through the weighted pupil unit, or WPU. The WPU sets a minimum level of funding per-pupil in all districts in the state. If a district brings in less in local taxes than mandated by the WPU, the state provides funding to make up the difference.
SB80 would increase the amount of funds allocated through WPU to supplement various types of local levies. This means that the existing floor for minimum per-pupil spending would be raised, increasing both the amount of money and the percentage of nonlocal money spent on students in both the North and South Sanpete School Districts.
The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore (R-South Jordan), said the change is necessary to allow smaller, poorer and more rural school districts to compete with their larger and wealthier counterparts.
“[We need to] provide a quality education to every child in the state regardless of the economic situation of their school district,” he said. “Some school districts have ski resorts and lakes, and others have vast desert that the federal government uses for target practice.”
Since school district boundaries were drawn by state lawmakers, Fillmore said it is incumbent on the Legislature to fix the “accidents of geography” they’ve propagated.
“We created this problem and we need to solve that problem on a statewide basis,” he said.
Okerlund, who represents District 24, which includes Sanpete County, said the Legislature is prioritizing higher education, too. He is seeking more money to fund distance education offered by colleges as well as for capital projects at Snow College, though he acknowledged funding is tight.
“Our [higher] education fund isn’t keeping up with our other funds,” he said. “We’re starting to look at how we can correct that. We want to make sure we have an ongoing source of funds for education so we can train our kids to be ready for the workforce.”
How municipal governments raise and spend money is the subject of HB164, which gained traction this week. Cities and towns sometimes raise fees for services and place the revenue in a slush fund where it can be used to fund projects other than the function for which the fees were collected. HB164 would prevent that from happening.
The Libertas Institute, a Lehi-based libertarian think tank, praised the bill for “put[ting] into statute what the Utah Supreme Court has basically already said,” namely that fees have to bear a “reasonable relationship” to the services provided.
But Okerlund said small communities often rely on fee-based slush funds to keep essential services and programs going.
“[These] amendments could hurt our communities, and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said. “We’re working against [this bill] or at least to amend it where it doesn’t hurt our communities.”
Okerlund said the Legislature is waiting to see what a new presidential administration will do before making some important decisions. For example, Donald Trump’s plans for Medicaid will affect how funding for healthcare occurs at the state level.
In the meantime, Okerlund has drafted three bills he hoped to move into various committees this week. One would look at tax credits for businesses in rural parts of the state. A second bill would seek to establish a public-private partnership to spur economic development in rural Utah. The third bill would address an outdoor recreation grant program that Okerlund wants to get off the ground.
Okerlund said the Joint Appropriations Committee is processing a request to fund ongoing preservation efforts at the historic school in Spring City. The committee should reach a decision by next week.
Another bill, HJR2, calls for a statewide vote in 2018 on whether Utah should eliminate daylight savings time. Its sponsor, Norm Thurston (R-Provo), said this is a top issue on “everybody’s list” and it is time for the Legislature to make it happen.
Since 2010, a bill addressing daylight savings time has surfaced almost every year, though no action has yet been taken.