Education funding: Cuts still loom, but stimulus funds helping
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Students, teachers and parents can breathe a tentative sigh of relief.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. have agreed to try to use federal stimulus money as a short-term fix to minimize education pain in budget cuts. Instead of the 18 percent cut to education lawmakers discussed earlier, they will likely put federal stimulus money and an extra $36 million in state funds toward education resulting in a net cut of about 6 percent for next school year.

Education leaders say that would be a far more manageable blow than the previous 18 percent target.

"That would have been a catastrophe," said Steven Peterson with the Utah School Boards and Utah School Superintendents association. "That would have cut public education to the bare bones."

State leaders have also agreed to use stimulus money to try to scale back cuts to higher education to 9 percent instead of higher cuts discussed earlier.

Legislative leaders will still likely give school districts the option of shortening the school year by five days to deal with the cuts. However, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said such an allowance would probably require a change in state law, which sets the length of the school year.

Lawmakers also would like to give higher education the option of furloughing employees up to 11 days.

Todd Hauber, state associate superintendent, said larger school districts might be able to handle a 6 percent cut without shortening the school year, but smaller ones might need that option. He said either way, a 6 percent cut would be a vast improvement over earlier figures.

The Utah State Office of Education has estimated that each 1 percent cut to education could mean a loss of more than 300 teachers' jobs, among other scenarios. Lawmakers, however, will likely leave decisions about where to make cuts largely up to school districts.

Kim Campbell, Utah Education Association president, said she's glad to see lawmakers using the stimulus money as it was intended. The UEA has been running television commercials urging Utahns to press lawmakers to use the stimulus money to reduce education cuts.

"The kids benefit, the economy benefits and Utah's future will benefit by filling those gaps," Campbell said.

Hillyard, however, warned that plugging education budget holes with stimulus money is a temporary fix.

"This is one-time stimulus money that will enable us to get through this school year, and after this year, we'll just have to see what happens," Hillyard, the Senate budget chairman, said. He said lawmakers still plan to leave the state's $414 million Rainy Day Fund and $100 million that was set aside for education last year untouched in case the economy doesn't recover soon.

In all, Utah is set to receive more than half a billion dollars in federal stimulus money for education, with nearly $400 million of that money intended to help higher and public education avoid deeper cuts.

Ultimately, lawmakers and the governor will likely decide together how to spend the stimulus money, Hillyard said.

Robert Gehrke contributed to this article.