Though most of Utah’s government agencies are facing budget cuts because of COVID-19-related shortages, local lawmakers fought to increase spending on education.
“Nobody likes to lose $757 million from where we were,” said Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan. “Because of the work that we’ve done in committees and in leadership, public education is not going to be hurt much at all. Public education will come out of this thing very, very well.”
Various bills passed during legislator’s fifth special session moved funding around — including utilizing one-third of available rainy-day reserves — to actually increase education’s budget by roughly 2%, according to Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.
“We did change some programs around so there’s people with their pet programs who are gonna be upset because their program has changed,” Hillyard said, “though we gave the superintendents more discretion with the money so they can pick and choose which ones of these programs they think are really worthwhile. Some will be funded by the locals and some won’t be.”
Using rainy-day funds to augment the budget cuts is a move many children advocate groups in the state, such as Voices for Utah Children’s CEO Maurice “Moe” Hickey, had been asking lawmakers to consider.
In a Facebook Live video with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Petersen, Hickey said cutting the education budget would be “devastating” to children’s behavior and mental health, as well, according to a Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Utah study.
As a result of COVID-19 school closures, “30% of parents have seen issues in their children that they hadn’t seen before,” Hickey said. “But then we also have the group that was already struggling as it was, and now they’re actually doing a little better according to the U, meaning they didn’t like being in school, so being home and being more isolated, it’s OK. But come August, we’re going to be putting both of those groups back together, and we don’t have enough counselors already.”
Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, said keeping promises made in the legislative session, such as the 6% increase of each school’s weighted pupil unit, was crucial for lawmakers.
“The voting was almost unanimous,” he said. “So what you saw was a nonpartisan approach to try to get this fixed, and there was no grandstanding.”
And according to Rep. Potter and Dale Hansen, the business administrator at Cache County School District, Hillyard was instrumental in the outcome.
“It’s something we didn’t anticipate,” Hansen said. “We expected education to be cut to the equivalent of other state agencies, so we were making provisions to adjust the budget in that regard. This is a wonderful thing for public ed to not need those reductions, especially seeing what changes we’ll need to have in place for this fall.”
Getting students safely back in schools was his top priority, though Hillyard said how that will look is yet to be determined — especially with Cache County currently as a national hotspot for COVID-19.
“It’s nothing I could pass as a law that’s going to suddenly change everything, because it’s how people really act,” Hillyard said. “And I think that’s something that we have to really be careful about. The better we do it, the quicker we’ll get this under control, and, the key obviously, is getting a good vaccine. Who knows when and where that’s going to be done, but the quicker, the better.”
Although the way public education will take place in the coming year is uncertain, Hansen said the soft closure in March was “a good exercise.”
“It was a big change, in a hurry,” he said. “We are much better prepared now to make the instruction even more meaningful and structured if (another closure) is required, but we hope it doesn’t get to that point, because we know instruction is much more effective in a classroom than students trying to work online at home.”
The Utah State Board of Education gave its projected plan on schools reopening in the fall to Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday for review, and then it will be released to the school districts throughout the state.