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Elected leaders of Utah County's biggest school system will consider whether their district can survive the coming year without roughly $40 million in federal money a reaction to broader protections for transgender students recently issued by the U.S. Department of Education.
The Alpine School District Board of Education stopped short of rejecting the federal funding outright as three board members wrote they would in a May letter to state leaders. The letter was a response to federal instruction for schools to allow transgender students to use the restrooms aligning with their gender identities. Refusing the money, some board members noted at their monthly meeting Tuesday evening, would block Alpine residents from reaping the benefits of their federal tax payments.
"I would like us to not feel like we are slaves to the federal dollars," Wendy Hart told fellow board members. "I'm just looking for us to have a budget in the wings so we know what we're up against."
Board members Hart, Paula Hill and Brian Halladay wrote last month that they would prefer to risk losing the $40 million or preemptively refuse it rather than comply with the new federal directive to allow transgender students to choose which bathrooms they enter.
Such a move is "morally reprehensible," they wrote, and "an invasion of the rights of a majority." Their letter urged Utah's elected officials to push back against the directive, ensure children's privacy and make Utah an example for the country.
Hart proposed Tuesday night that the board hash out a backup budget devoid of federal assistance by September. It failed to win enough support Tuesday in a 3-4 vote, but the committee said it would continue to informally discuss how the district could fare without the 6.3 percent slice of its total revenue for the 2016-17 school year.
Board member JoDee Sundberg said she supported "having a study session on what that would look like." But the board needs to take a pause and additional scrutiny, she said before spurning the money that is disbursed across Alpine's 83 schools.
"My passion is with what you're saying," Sundberg told Hart, "but we're dealing with 75,000 children's educations."
Sundberg urged her colleagues to lobby state and national representatives for a change in statute "instead of making ourselves an island and pulling away and not being able to educate our children."
Alpine would lose out on its residents' tax payments, she noted, if it rejected the money from Washington, D.C.
If the district were to raise property taxes to an average of $300 per home, said Alpine business administrator Rob Smith, it could bring in an additional $12 million. Another tax hike could potentially reap $8 million more, Smith said, but current caps prevented it from growing any further, and $20 million still would be missing.
Others noted the district is already grappling with how to make way for an anticipated growth of 5,000 new students over the next five years.
"I'd much rather use it as bond money and build the schools we need," said board member Scott Carlson.
The district already is planning to ask voters in November to approve a $386 million bond to cope with the growth.
But Halladay pushed back, saying the directive was a clear example of federal overreach that warranted swift reaction from the board.
"With the recent federal mandates that have come down, I think we owe it to our taxpayers to have the discussion," Halladay said, referring to both the transgender directive and 2013 requirements boosting nutrition standards for school lunch.
The board passed a tentative $627 million budget for the 2016-2017 school year in a 5-2 vote. Halladay and Hart voted no, saying they wanted to see the panel commit to a specific deadline to review its ties to the federal government.
"It's just sad to me that yet again we're not able to have local control," Hart said. "I think that our district is in a perfect position to be able to influence the state and have those options available to us."
Hart said she believes charity organizations and donors could help the school make up the difference were it to lose the federal money flowing to free and reduced-cost lunches for students from low-income families.
"We have some of the most giving people in this area," Hart said. "And I can't imagine that we couldn't leverage that somehow."
Added Hill: "I would just like to see a budget without federal dollars." The district could more efficiently run its meal and special education programs, she said.
"If we did it ourselves, we'd do it for a whole lot less," Hill said.
More than two dozen Alpine teachers, students, graduates, parents and others came to last month's meeting to express support for or dismay at the federal protections for students who feel innately that their true gender conflicts with their birth sex.
But no one from outside the board came to the June meeting to talk about the directive. The discussion wasn't on the board's agenda for Tuesday, and earlier in the day, a district spokeswoman said the matter would not come up again.
The Tuesday discussion was an apparent break from board President John Burton's sentiments at the May meeting, when he said, according to the meeting minutes, that it was "unfortunate" that some had perceived the open letter from Hart, Hill and Halladay as being a statement on behalf of the district, because "it was not."
The board has no plans to raise taxes, he said, to replace the $40 million in federal money used for special education; free and reduced-price lunches; career and technical programs and assistance for schools in low-income neighborhoods.
"We have policies for the protection, rights and safety for all students," Burton said. "We have, for many years, accommodated individual students' needs without infringing on the rights and privacy of others, and will continue to do so."
If schools force transgender students to use the restroom corresponding with their birth sex, or mandate the student use a single restroom, the Department of Education's Office of Civil rights could cite them for violating federal anti-discrimination law. But no school has lost its federal funding for such an offense.
"As is consistently recognized in civil rights cases," the Obama administration wrote in its "Dear Colleague" letter to schools receiving U.S. tax dollars, "the desire to accommodate others' discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students." The sentiment echoed U.S. Department of Justice Action against a North Carolina law restricting public bathroom use for transgender people.