Melissa Bracken learned to drive on a road with one street light and a Tooele High School instructor in the passenger seat.
Bracken, unemployed in early June, planned to have her three teens learn from the high school driver's ed program, too.
But the school is dissolving the program, one of many cuts to hit the classroom floor as Tooele School District pares down its budget and grapples with a nearly $1 million shortfall.
Now, Bracken is bracing to put a few hundred dollars toward private driving lessons for her sons. "It's going to put me more in a world of hurt than anything," she said.
Tooele's supply of state dollars, once flowing, has slowed to a trickle. And the down economy has dried up other revenues. The district's Board of Educationhas cut more than $12 million in recent years, avoiding drastic measures such as closing schools and firing workers. But this year, members concede, that could change.
The board Tuesday approved a nearly $111 million preliminary budget in a 5-2 vote. It's about a 3 percent increase from last year. At the meeting, board members agreed to cut $1.4 million in spending for next school year. Taxes won't go up this time around, but they may climb next year as part of a bond to cancel out some district debts.
The oncoming cuts could mean layoffs, said Board President Maresa Manzione, but "I think there's still more we can do before it comes to a major RIF [reduction in force]," she said. "At least I hope so."
Bad timing • Property values in Tooele sank during the recession, but they plummeted deeper in other districts. And some of those districts were coping with hundreds of new students as Tooele's enrollment slowed.
So state dollars for growing schools shifted elsewhere, and Tooele "didn't see it coming," said Bruce Williams, the district's former business administrator who now oversees spending statewide as an associate superintendent.
In 2011, Tooele School District received $2.4 million from the capital outlay fund, which helps districts pay off debt, build classrooms and adjust to enrollment surges. The next year, the amount shriveled by half. It is now $430,000.
The state's capital outlay fund was steady for years, Williams said. At its peak in 2008, it totaled $77 million. It has since shriveled to less than $15 million. And its payouts have shifted to districts such as Alpine, Utah's most populous. There, home values dropped in the last five years, but school enrollment climbed 10 percent in the same period, twice the rate of Tooele's.
Instead of sufficiently funding capital outlay, lawmakers have prioritized state revenue for per-student spending, said Utah State Sen. Howard Stephenson, Senate chairman of the committee that divvies up public school money. Local taxpayers are now shouldering dramatic increases in districts with burgeoning class sizes.
"If you're a poor district with lots of students and very little tax base," he said, "that's a problem."
As Tooele School District scrabbles, so does the larger county. Officials have slashed dozens of jobs and called off this year's county fair as federal programs clear out of warehouses there and quit paying county rent.
Making do • Board members Jeff Hogan and Scott Bryan, who voted down the budget Tuesday, urged board members to cut more to avoid snowballing debt.
"We backed ourselves into this corner. It's our fault," Hogan said earlier in June.
The board has dipped into its savings account since 2009, and last summer hiked property taxes by 9 percent. This winter, board members debated whether to turn all nonteachers such as custodians, cafeteria and support workers into contract workers without benefits.
But they have since shelved the idea. Board member Kathy Taylor criticized the plan, saying some custodians develop irreplaceable relationships with students. Maintaining district morale, she said, "is more important than all the money that could be saved."
In early June, the board floated closing one of 25 district schools or cutting down to a four-day school week.
Officials say the district cut more than $12 million from its budget in recent years, under outgoing Superintendent Terry Linares. It nixed building projects, stifled cost-of-living adjustments, closed positions left by retirees and adopted a four-day summer work week, said Assistant Superintendent Dolene Pitt.
"We've made it work," Pitt said. "It's not been easy."
The decision of where to cut ultimately lies with incoming Superintendent Scott Rogers of Idaho, who takes the helm in July.
Despite its deficit, the board raised the superintendent salary last summer about 20 percent to $151,000, including benefits. Board members said the pay hike, the first for that position in the last half decade, would attract strong leadership to the district.
"I would hate to increase class sizes" and lay off workers, Rogers said, naming other such options as furlough days, salary freezes and hiring administrative interns instead of full-time employees. But salaries make up the bulk of the budget, he said, so "it's hard to find other options in the $1.4 million."
Robert Gowan, the president of the Tooele Education Association, questioned where the axe would fall. "There's been a whole lot of promise to these people that they have a job, and now we get into possible employee cuts," he said, advocating for a district-wide hiring freeze.
Lesley Mollard, a kindergarten teacher at Copper Canyon Elementary, called the budget "a good start" but said she worries it will mean fewer textbooks and larger class sizes, already sore subjects in district schools.
But Tooele schools count a handful of successes despite constraints, said Tooele High School Principal Bill Gochis, including a recently added "intervention" period for students to get extra help during the school day.
At Tooele High, officials say too few students are signing up for the driver's ed course. The school will instead put dwindling funds toward hiring a new science teacher.
Bracken, the mother of three, lost her state job working in insurance complaints in October. In June, she began as an assistant at a Salt Lake production company. The new job is a relief, she says, but it's going to be a tight few weeks when her public assistance halts and before her new paychecks come in.
Area driving schools charge from about $150 to $300, which she says would eat away at rent and groceries. It weakens hopes of helping her son afford a car or installing Internet at home.
"I hate to see my community suffer because I've lived out here my entire 40 years," she said. "That's all we can hope for is that things will start to get better."
By the numbers
3 percent increase from last year
$1 million predicted shortfall for the 2013-2014 school year
28 district schools
$110.8 million budget
$1.4 million in cuts