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As part of a budgeting exercise this month, the state school board's three-member leadership team recommended shifting funding from public schools to charter schools.

The proposal is largely theoretical, but some worry it shows the changing philosophical makeup of the public school oversight committee.

School board vice chairman David Thomas said the alarm is premature.

The recommendations are meant to guide discussion, he said, and lawmakers are looking at a sizable surplus that should result in more, and not less, money for schools.

"This is round one of a 15-round prize fight," he said. "We're at the very beginning."

Legislators gave the homework assignment to several public agencies last week, asking how a 2 percent cut in funding could be absorbed. The exercise is meant to identify areas of inefficiency.

For the 15-member state school board, that meant carving about $55 million out of the state's public school budget.

Board leaders suggested increasing the amount of property taxes that local districts forward to charter schools within their boundaries. That funding currently is covered by the state.

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said that if enacted by the Legislature, the school board's proposal would cost Granite an additional $3.6 million each year.

"We'd either cut services to our students to provide services to students we don't serve, or we'd raise taxes against our own taxpayers," he said.

But for Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, an advocate of the alternative public schools, a willingness to consider charter school funding reform is indicative of "a new day with the state school board."

The Draper Republican sponsored a bill last year that would have had a similar effect on so-called "charter school local replacement funds." The bill passed an initial vote in the Senate but ultimately was unsuccessful.

"Now that the state school board recognizes that it is an issue we ought to address, I think the Legislature will address it," he said. "Finally we have a state school board recognizing the inequity that this creates."

Charter school proponents have complained over the years that only a portion of local property tax revenue follows a student when they transfer from a district school to a charter, with state funds covering the remaining cost of educating that child.

This creates "phantom students," Stephenson said, as local school districts continue to collect property tax revenue for vacated seats at traditional schools.

"This was a terrible policy call when we first started charter schools and we've been grappling to end it for years with no success," he said. "Every dime should follow the student to the school of the parent's choice."

But Horsley said school district enrollment continues to grow despite the growth of charter schools. And a school's expenses are not necessarily reduced when individual students leave the district to attend a charter.

He also questioned the transparency of charter school funding, which is overseen by governing boards, rather than the elected school boards of local school districts.

"We're collecting taxes, but who's accountable for those [replacement] funds?" he said. "The Legislature isn't. They're just passing it on to the charter schools."

Former state superintendent Patti Harrington also questioned whether shifting the funds would eliminate oversight. Harrington now works as executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association.

If charter schools are to receive a greater share of property tax revenue, she said, then an elected person or body needs to be accountable for the allocation of those funds.

Charter schools were created by the state, Harrington, said, and as a result it is appropriate that charters are supported by replacement funding at the state level.

"I'm certainly not against the idea of equity, but we feel strongly that local property taxes for the local property taxpayer should go to school districts," she said.

Harrington also said it is strange for the state school board to be asked to review a hypothetical funding cut during a surplus year.

"That they're doing this exercise right now in the midst of such wonderful revenues is very unusual in my mind," she said.

But Stephenson said lawmakers regularly examine where cuts could be made, even when cuts are unlikely. He said it provides an opportunity to identify which public programs have the greatest support and impact.

The budget recommendations were drafted without input from the full school board, which includes six new members elected in November. The issue is expected to be discussed at the board's Jan. 29 meeting.

Stephenson said the state needs to get away from the idea that existing budget items are untouchable.

"I think this is a very positive process," he said. "Even in times of surplus such as these we need to keep looking for greater efficiencies in government."