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State legislators hand down a grim education funding picture

Article Date: 
14 December, 2012 (All day)

The Morgan County School Board got a grim outlook for the future of state education funding during their annual presentation to legislators.
With a small tax base and above-state average family sizes, Morgan County has a unique school district compared to others in the state, Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, said.
“You don’t get any benefit of state programs to bring you up to state average.  It creates a burden on your taxpayers,” he said.  “Morgan has some very unique problems.  The funding formulas developed by the state don’t help you much.  There’s no win in it.”
With the repeal of Bush-era tax cuts as well as increased costs to put Obamacare in action, the state is facing a “severe problem,” Brown said.
Morgan Superintendent Ken Adams suggested Utah legislators take a tough stance on federal programs.
“Put the gauntlet down as legislators and law makers that the federal government cannot demand we conduct a program of their making if we don’t have the money.”
Adams said that school districts face the reality of being sued for not implementing federal programs local districts don’t have the money to fund.
“This whole thing we are dealing with has some very serious ramifications in it,” Brown said.  “We want more control.” 
He said he has been tempted to tell the federal government, “We don’t want your money, or your program.”
“The party is over,” State Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said.  “The federal government has driven us into debt.  However we skin this cat, there is going to be less money to do programs initiated by the federal government.  Either we are going to have to cut those programs significantly or the state is going to have to come up with gap funding.  I would guess a combination of both is needed.”
Reid predicts another decade of economic bad times.
“I don’t want to fool anyone. The national economy will not improve to the level needed to support these programs,” Reid said.  “We are in an era where running a school district is going to be challenging in the state of Utah.  We are in a very challenging time.  The residents here need to understand it.”
To counteract it, Reid said communities need to focus on economic development.
“You need to create a (I-84) corridor to capture the money that isn’t yours,” Reid said.
Adams agreed.
“The city and the county have got to start promoting economic development,” Adams said.  “We have to stop the mindset that we are a bedroom community.  We have to stand on our own.
“We have an affluent community, but we do not have a tax base,” he said.  “It is killing us.”
“People who don’t live in rural Utah like we do don’t understand it costs more money to provide a full-blown education based on economy of scale,” Brown said.  “We’ve got o figure out a way during the session to get more money into the education budget without raising taxes.”
Adams and Business Administrator D’Lynn Poll told legislatures the single thing legislators could do to help the Morgan County School District is to fully fund growth, meaning both an increase in weighted pupil unit as well as funding “below the line” items for the transportation, special education, and specialized reading assistance for any new students.
Adams said that since 2009, the school district has added 347 additional students, averaging about 69.4 students a year.  In that same time, the district has received less and less money from the state( from $6.9 million in 2009 to $6.16 million this year), only hired three teachers, and made $1 million in budget cuts.
“We have added children to all the different programs we do, without getting funding for these programs,” Poll said.
The problem with the request is legislators usually only look at funding “above the line” items such as base programs, Brown said.  “The ones below the line are left out,” he said.  Brown asked the board to prioritize below the line programs.
Increased costs of retirement as well as about $32,000 less for transportation funding from the state has made a big impact on the school district’s finances, Poll said.  Decreased property valuations have almost stymied the district’s ability to generate more tax revenue through levies, she said.
State School Board Member Tami Pyfer said state legislators should be expected to always fully fund growth.  “It is a basic expectation,” she said.  “My frustration is that there has been a decrease in resources and an increase in expectations.  You’re asking us to do more with less.”