Friday, February 4, 2011

Third Day at the Legislature

Yesterday morning I attended the Joint Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Peggy Jo Kennett was also in attendance.  They looked at transportation, libraries, and nursing services that are funded with one-time money "below the line."  Several on the committee are looking at putting all funding "above the line" in the WPU and then allowing school districts to decide how to spend that money.  One one side, there is more local control.  On the other side, some areas might not be funded as the legislature wants. 

Representative Sumsion brought a proposal on how to do this with some students weighted more.  He said he had been working on this plan for over a year.  It was quite complex and difficult for someone to understand at first reading.  To his credit, Senator Buttars, chair of the committee, recommended the proposal be brought to the interim committee after the session for all members to study over the course of the next year.

On transportation, there is funding for "to and from school" and "other" including field trips and activity transport.  Last year, there was $6.3 million in one-time funds for transportation that will not be there this year.  Jordan doesn't need a lot for transportation, because our district is relatively compact.  San Juan District, on the other hand, needs a lot for transportation.  The district covers 8,000 square miles and students may travel up to 50 miles one way to go to school.  The funds here should be distributed by need and not just by the WPU.

State Superintendent Shumway had data one each district showing what was actually spent in a variety of categories.  You can see this report at the USOE website and click on Annual Program Report.  Utah spend about 1/3 less than the national average on transportation.  Questions were asked about the feasibility of using UTA, like West High School does.  Superintendent Shumway did have data looking at Murray, Salt Lake, and Ogden districts if they used UTA.  The cost is a little bit higher in the short term, but much higher in the long term considering UTA has announced a 25% rate increase.

Representative Newbold suggested increasing the distance for mandatory busing for secondary students. 

The Library Media Specialists from Granite and Davis districts talked about how some below the line funding for library books must remain a line item.  If that money is added to the WPU, it could end up elsewhere.  They looked at schools and found the range of money per student spent on materials for the library varied from $2.75 to $10 per school.  It was a matter of local priority.  There used to be a line item in the early 1980's that provided for a certified teacher librarian in every school.  In 1985 when that line item was removed, Jordan lost all elementary certified librarians.  Currently, five districts have a library specialist in every school at all levels.  Seven districts have no library specialists in any school.  Based on population, below 300 students does not require a certified librarian.  From 300 to 850 students, the school should have a part-time certified librarian.  Over 800 students, there should be a full-time certified librarian.  This comes from the Northwest Accreditation Standard.  Because the state isn't funding this, many schools who should have certified librarians do not.

Senator Thatcher said this is a personal issue for him, and he wants to increase the funding of the library books line item.

Senator Stephenson talked about cycles of local control.  When the legislature give more local control, the money goes on the salary schedule.  The legislature needs to protect line items, because if the money is in the WPU, school boards can't keep that money off the negotiating table.  He said the State School Board should require certified librarians to receive this money.  He said not to trust local school boards to say no to the unions.

The base of $31 million above the line funding for libraries is not enough to put a certified librarian in every school that qualifies.  Most districts choose to spend more on library books than is allotted them by the legislature.

Representative Gibson said the $100,000 for books that was being discussed is "budget dust", but that the committee needs to decide if it should be added to the WPU or remain a separate line item.

School Nursing Incentive Fund was at $882,000 last year.  It started at $1 million four years ago.  It has a matching requirement, so districts must apply and commit to their half.  Representative Cosgrove asked about the student to nurse ratio.  Statewide it is 4,000 to 1.  Representative Poulsen spoke to the value of a school nurse.

I sat in both the House and Senate for a while.  Nothing pertaining to education was addressed on the floor.  Congressman Matheson visited and spoke.  He mainly talked about the economy and health care.  He said that yesterday, Congress passed a bill removing a provision in the health care law requiring that when you sell your house, you pay 3% that would go to fund health care.  He said no one knew this was in the law when it originally passed, and now it is out.  He said they will be continuing to clean up the health care act.

In the afternoon was the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.  Susan Pulsipher was in attendance as well.  HB 72 changes how school districts are funded.  The bill would reinstate the full tax on food, earmarking the increase for public education and some for charter schools, and then property taxes would be lower in an equivalent amount, making this revenue neutral.  A discussion about the stability of property taxes versus sales taxes took place.  Representative Noel eventually admitted that sales tax may not be as stable as property tax, but sales tax will grow while property taxes will not.  While this may be true over the last 3 years, over the last 30 years, property taxes are much more stable and have grown as property values increase. 

Representative Butterfield says property taxes are punitive and wants none with all taxes coming through sales.  Although he supports charter schools, he is concerned about putting in state code a dedication of fund to charter schools.

Representative Briscoe stated that this is just a tax shift.  He asked if the sales tax rate would increase should there not be enough tax revenue to districts to pay their bonded indebtedness obligations.  That is not in the bill.  He also asked why $2.1 million would be added to the restricted transportation fund through this bill.  It is a percent of the sales tax revenue, but that percentage could be changed.

Districts which receive the sales tax money would be required to reduce their certified tax rate and not raise it again for at least one year.  Representative King pointed out that this ties the hands of local taxing entities.  He said that the Utah legislature complains about the restrictions put upon them by the federal government, and now the legislature is looking at doing the same to other entities in the state of Utah.

SB 59 which is about grading schools made it out of a Senate committee with a favorable recommendation yesterday.  Please contact your Senator and share your thoughts on schools being assigned a grade.  The following are talking points about this bill from the association perspective as written by UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh.

  • We believe the concept of one single grade for a school simplifies the complex nature of schools and contributes to a lack of transparency for parents.
  • U-PASS reporting mechanisms are currently in place identifying a percentage score on multiple indicators for achievement as well as progress. We support using the existing U-PASS reporting mechanisms to assign multiple letter grades to a particular school.
  • Public schools do a great deal with the U-PASS information. It is extremely detailed and reporting of the scores is both accessible and comprehensive. Teachers report this information to parents and School Community Councils use the data to collaboratively develop each School Improvement Plan.
  • U-PASS is a reporting process with which parents, teachers, and School Community Councils are familiar. In addition, U-PASS also reports for demographic subgroups including English Language Learners, Special Education and economically disadvantaged, which may affect the single grade of a school.
  • SB59 also proposes that no more than 80% of schools would qualify for a grade of an A or B (Bell curve). This creates winners and losers. We support standards where each school stands an equal opportunity for achieving and A or B grade and improvement.
  • This is similar to the Florida model of grading schools. In Florida, there is a monetary reward for improvement, caps on class size (18 for K-3), and supports in place for schools that do not score well. However, the current SB59 language has no resources designated for improvement. We support the allocation of resources designed to improve student learning.
Stay informed.  Be proactive in contacting your legislators.  Now is the time to act.  Decisions being made during the legislative session will impact your job and working conditions for years to come.

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