As Utah guv cuts spending, not even education escapes the ax
Money » Huntsman proposes reductions but also softens the blow.
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It looks as though education in Utah will no longer escape the sinking economy's pull.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. recommended Thursday that the next state budget include no new raises for teachers, no increase in the amount of state money spent per student, and changes that will effectively mean about $59 million less for state education. He also recommended the state not offer as much money for school construction.

Huntsman did, however, recommend fully funding more than 13,500 new students expected to enroll in Utah schools. And he wants to inject $153 million from other state sources into education to keep the cuts from running any deeper.

"I can tell you that this is the best that we can do," Huntsman said. In all, he's recommending $3.6 billion be spent on education out of a total state budget of $10.6 billion.

Huntsman said he aims to continue holding education harmless this fiscal year even though other programs across the state have been cut. He said he also tried to make sure any cuts to education would not hurt classrooms.

State Superintendent Patti Harrington said Thursday she was "very pleased" with the recommendations.

"I think this budget is very much a budget that supports children," Harrington said. "We also recognize fully that other agencies in the state have had to take cuts to help sustain education."

Utah Education Association (UEA) President Kim Campbell also praised the recommendations even though they do not include new raises for teachers. The state has given new raises to teachers for the past two years. Teachers would continue to get that money as part of the recommendations but would not get any new money.

Huntsman said he's still optimistic that Utah teachers will earn as much as other teachers nationwide within the next few years.

Campbell said what's most important is that the recommendations put basic education needs first.

"Things could have been much worse," Campbell said. "This budget seems to show a willingness to try to minimize the impact on Utah's classrooms."

In fact, things could have been much, much worse. The governor is actually recommending $212 million be cut from education. However, he's also recommending that $153 million be injected into education for one year only. That means instead of an actual $212 million cut, under his plan education would see only a $59 million cut for fiscal year 2010.

Most of that $153 million would come from $100 million lawmakers set aside for future education needs last session. The rest would likely come from the state's $414 million Rainy Day Fund and other sources, said John Nixon, executive director for the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget.

But that $153 million would be for one year only, meaning if the economy doesn't significantly improve by the next year, the state could be digging an even deeper hole for future education budgets.

Huntsman said he'll largely leave recommendations of where the $59 million cut should come from up to state education leaders. The Utah Board of Education has recommended the state save money by eliminating a number of programs, including $20 million slated to go toward performance pay for teachers; USTAR, which is a math and science education program; and an at-home software program for preschoolers, among other things.

Lawmakers will ultimately decide how to shape the state's education budget.

It's unclear how much anticipated cuts might affect the Utah Office of Education as an agency. Harrington said she's been told to brace for anywhere from 1 percent to 15 percent in cuts next fiscal year.

She said her office would probably be able to deal with a 1.5 percent cut by eliminating positions through attrition, but one of the larger cuts could mean at least 15 layoffs in her office.

"I've tried not to alarm my staff, but this is a worsening economy and revenues are shorter than we thought they were going to be," Harrington said. She said her office will explore a number of strategies to try to keep cuts from affecting schools.

One strategy the office is considering, she said, is eliminating U-PASS testing for one year to save money. That would mean fewer tests for students for a year but also no state measure of school progress for one year.

Harrington hopes the cuts won't be too steep, but no one knows what will happen for sure.

"I think we all have worries about the economy in general, but I respect very much that we have state leaders willing to make a budget balance rather than stand on tomorrow's citizens," Harrington said.

lschencker@sltrib.com