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Utah school districts are pinching pennies

Published June 28, 2011 7:27 am

Education • Salary freezes, tax hikes are options on the table in dealing with shrunken budgets.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For a third consecutive year, Utah school districts are grappling with tight budgets. Some are asking taxpayers to pony up more cash, and others are freezing teachers' salaries and dipping into rainy-day funds.

Despite the Legislature shifting $50 million to fund growth in education, many school districts have discovered they are receiving less in state funds than they did a year ago because money has been taken away from other programs.

And one-time federal stimulus funds that flowed to education over the past two years are drying up. That money helped districts save jobs and services during the recession.

"They've reached the cliff," says Larry Newton, finance director for the state Office of Education.

Granite, Davis, Cache and Logan school districts are planning tax hikes. By law, they must hold public hearings in August before adjusting their rates. This month, school districts must approve final or tentative budgets for the upcoming school year.

In Logan, teacher layoffs sparked a student rally at a school board meeting last week. More than 200 people attended the meeting to protest the firing of a popular AP Calculus teacher at Logan High. Liz Mott was one of five middle- and high-school teachers who were laid off, said Superintendent Marshall Garrett.

Because seniority-based layoffs have been outlawed by the Legislature, Logan district, in consultation with the Logan Education Association, cut part-time teachers before full-time ones, who have long-term rather than yearly contracts. Mott worked half time.

"We have outstanding teachers. This is a loss to our district," Garrett said. "The people who are leaving us are part of our family, and they are good people. It's a very unfortunate situation that we're in."

Here's a look at the budgets of a sampling of Utah school districts, including the five largest.

Granite • With a $12.8 million shortfall, including a $1.1 million drop in state funds, Granite is trimming $7.8 million from its budget and proposing a $5 million tax increase. The tax boost would add $30 a year to the property-tax bill for a $220,000 home. Through attrition, Granite has eliminated the equivalent of 45 full-time positions over the past two years. Most of the reductions have been in support staff to avoid a class-size increase. The district also has eliminated car allowances ($75,000) and cut $1.8 million in health insurance expenses.

At a budget hearing, parents and teachers urged Granite to preserve its elementary school music program, which provides band and orchestra classes to fifth- and sixth-graders. In the end, the board did not cut $850,000 from the program as had been proposed.

Alpine • This northern Utah County district is expecting its enrollment to swell by 2,374 students this fall, bringing the total to 68,474 students. Because the state shifted more funds toward growth, Alpine is receiving nearly $12 million more in state funds than it did last year. The district is not proposing a tax increase.

Alpine plans to hire 90 full-time teachers and open three new schools this fall. The district will spend $2.2 million to keep staff it hired last year with one-time federal cash for education jobs. Teachers and other employees will get scheduled pay boosts. Average class sizes will be maintained. The district is continuing cuts it made two years ago, including a 10 percent reduction in spending on supplies.

Davis • For the second year in a row, Davis is asking taxpayers to pitch in more for schools. Davis faced $18.7 million in additional expenses this year, including $3 million to restore two school days that were cut last year on a one-time basis to save money. But it is one of the school districts that is receiving more — not less — in state funds. It will get a $3 million boost from the state.

Still, to cover those rising costs, including scheduled raises for employees and 900 new students, Davis is asking taxpayers for an additional $8.5 million — that's $64 a year for a $200,000 home. The tax increase also includes $2.5 million to reduce average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade by one student.

Jordan • After two years of shortfalls near $30 million, Jordan had a smoother budget year. The district used reserves to plug a $6.5 million gap from growing expenses, including 800 new students, and a $2.1 million drop in state funds. (The bulk of the drop, $1.6 million, was due to busing changes.) Employees will not be getting raises next year.

Canyons • The 2-year-old district, which expects 74 new students this fall, is receiving $4 million less in state funds. Plus, Canyons must spend $3.6 million to restore five school days that were cut last year to save cash. The district has set aside $1.8 million to prepare for the addition of a new high school in fall 2013. The money will fund 24 positions starting in 2012-13, according to the district's 2011-12 budget report.

Canyons will dip into reserves and capture some one-time revenue by combining six levies allowed under a new law, HB301, that was passed by the Legislature this year. Meanwhile, the special education department is facing a $430,000 shortfall and could cut a dozen classroom aides and a week of paid prep time for teachers.

Salt Lake City • After losing 160 students last year, Salt Lake City School District expects 105 more this year. The school district is taking a hit in state funds of $4.7 million, both because of its negligible growth and because of cuts to funding for at-risk students. The district has proposed a tax increase of $1.7 million, which would cost the owner of a $250,000 home $17 a year.

Ogden • For a third year, Ogden district is not giving teachers scheduled pay increases for years of experience, known as "steps." It's also the third year the district has received less state funding, notes business administrator Eugene Hart. This year, Ogden district will receive $2.3 million less from the state. Ogden is using reserves to fill the shortfall.

Cache • To preserve its K-3 reading program, buy new buses, maintain buildings and purchase software, Cache County School District has proposed a $1.4 million tax increase. The hike would add $47 to the annual property tax bill of a $200,000 home. Cache expects 130 students next fall but is not hiring any new teachers so average class sizes will increase by 0.5 students. The district is funding employees' scheduled pay raises.

Logan • With a drop in state funds of $1.7 million, Logan district cut the equivalent of 14 full-time teachers and three full-time support staffers. Most were cut through attrition, but five teachers were laid off. The district is not funding scheduled pay boosts for employees. It's asking taxpayers for $240,000 more a year, which would amount to $27 on the annual property-tax bill of a $150,000 home.

rwinters@sltrib.com —

Want to give your two cents on a tax hike for schools?

P The following school boards have scheduled truth-in-taxation hearings for proposed tax increases. Hearings likely will be held in board meeting rooms, but check with individual districts for locations.

Granite • Aug. 2, 6 p.m.

Davis • Aug. 11, 6 p.m.

Salt Lake City • Aug. 2, 7 p.m.

Cache • Aug. 4, 6 p.m.

Logan • Aug. 9, 6 p.m.




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