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Front Page » August 8, 2006 » Local News » Exploring complex future of financing public schools at l...
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Exploring complex future of financing public schools at locations across Utah

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Demolition crews focus on tearing down the East Carbon High building last week. By Monday, the school was completely razed. The finances of districts is dependent on the number of students who attend a school. East Carbon High posted declining student populations and the school was, at least in part, a victim of finances.

The public school finance scenario for districts in Utah is a complicated one.

Funding for schools is a mixture of property tax dollars, fees, grants, federal revenues and different public or private monies. Even with the current complexity, educational finance in Utah could become more intricate in the future.

Three primary factors will affect the school finance situation in the state in the next 20 years. First is the population growth of the state.

Politics are next and the bent of Utah Legislature is important. The latest wrinkle is a law that will allow some cities to create school districts and decimate the ranks of some of the larger public school systems in the state.

Growth has been a problem for schools for 60 years. Since World War II, growth spurts have complicated the financing of schools, particularly in Utah's metropolitan areas.

At first, the growth was mainly around the Salt Lake City and Ogden areas, where returning veterans started families. By the 1950s, school districts like Granite, Davis and Weber were growing at a tremendous rate.

The growth continued into the 1960s and 1970s, with Jordan, Alpine, Nebo and Provo districts taking on a lot more students.

While large districts like Salt Lake City and Granite have actually decreased in student enrollment (Granite is down about 8,000 from 20 years ago), Jordan, Alpine, Davis, Nebo and now Washington County School District in the southwest part of the state are growing rapidly as open space in those areas quickly becomes housing tracts.

Projections show that by 2030 the area from Ogden to Provo will grow in population by 75 percent (from a present population of 1.9 million). With a high rate of people moving in, and the nations highest fertility rate, that part of Utah will grow dramatically. That kind of growth generates more taxes, but it also generates the need for more school services as well. And that growth can also drain off resources to other parts of the state that either don't grow or grow more slowly.

Presently Utah is 50th or 51st in the nation in almost every category of school finance. According to the Utah Education Association in 2003 total average per pupil spending in the United States was $8,019. In Utah it was $4,860. Breaking it down, Utah spent $3,123 on instruction per pupil (U.S. average $4,902), pupil support was $171 per student (U.S. average $415), staff support got $225 (U.S. average $391) and school administration received $297 per student (while the countries average was $453).

While this appears to be a total crisis, one must remember that the average age for Utahns is a little more than 27 years old. This makes the school-age population very large for the small total population of the state supporting schools with tax revenues. In 2005-2006 the largest district in the state was Jordan District with 77,369 students. The smallest district was Daggett County Schools with 156 students. Carbon had 3,389, while Emery had 2,335. Carbon is the 22nd out of 40 districts in the state in student enrollment.

The state's growth is being fueled both internally and externally. In the past most of Utah's population expansion came from the large families the state has. With between three to four children in the average household, kids grew up to expand the economic and population base. But in the last 10 years, in-migration has also expanded greatly as large companies move in and bring workers with them, and as new enterprises start.

While that growth will fuel tax revenues (such as this years billion dollar excess that the legislature had to deal with), it will also add costs for municipalities and school districts. As the cost of education grows, that cost could outstrip even the present spending per student in the state.

The second factor in the financial state of school districts will be up to the process of legislation. Each year when the legislature meets, they determine how much money public education will be allotted in the state. When the state's economy is going well, generally education gets somewhat near what they want from the legislative body; when it is bad the money is just not there.

Utah's legislature is generally a conservative one, due to the politics of the state. Many of the legislators often not only clash with educators and administrators on the needs for education, but also with the Utah Education Association, the most powerful lobbying group for public education on capitol hill. Depending on the politics, coupled with who is elected to legislative offices and who the governor is, education often finds itself at odds with the priorities of the house and senate in Utah's government.

Those facts alone will determine, in large part, how education is funded in the future. Add in the fact that the needs of the state will increase in terms of highways, social services and higher education as the population grows, and more pressures are exerted on the financial responsibilities held by the legislature.

Next, although not the final factor in the equation, but one that could affect education financing throughout the state, is that the legislature changed the law, and will now allow cities of the second class to pull out of existing school districts and create their own.

Up until 1980, cities of the second class had to form their own school districts when they incorporated. That is one of the reasons districts such as Logan, Ogden and Provo districts exist within the boundaries of much larger districts like Cache, Weber and Alpine. But in 1980 when West Valley City incorporated out of county areas formerly known as Chesterfield, Granger, Hunter and parts of Kearns, they would have taken a large part of Granite School Districts area away. So before that incorporation, the state passed legislation that precluded that from having to take place in West Valley City, which at the time became the third largest (population wise) city in the state. And West Valley City did not form their own district.

However, in the ensuing years, many have pushed to allow cities to withdraw from districts and form their own school entities. In the last legislative session the law was passed to allow first and second class cities to do so. Under the Utah code a first class city is one with a population of 100,000 or more while a second class city falls within the 65,000 to 100,000 population range. Third class is from 30,000 to 65,000 and fourth is 10,000 to 30,000. Price is considered a fifth class city with a population of near 10,000 because it falls between 1,000 and 10,000 in population. Any municipality that has less than 1,000 residents is considered a town.

However, now that the state has approved second class and above cities to form their own school districts, it could change some of the financing throughout the state. According to the new statute (Utah Code 53A-2-118.1, a city would have to conduct a feasibility study and get approval from voters to form the new district. According to the code even two or more cities, or part of the county could combine to form the new district, as long as all were part of one county.

There are a number of cities along the Wasatch Front that have been talking about doing this. Should that happen some very large districts could instantly become very small while some non-existent districts would come into being. The size of a district relates to many things. Recently the Salt Lake Tribune reported ("Utah's school districts; is smaller better?" July 18) that the Utah Office of Education did a study and found that financially the optimal school district would have around 43,000 students in it. But others involved in such areas as the actual education of students, curriculum and even maintenance of buildings might disagree with that analysis in terms of what they do.

One thing that would occur should new school districts be formed is a revamped administration in those districts. While teachers and other staff members, along with equipment and facilities, might be transferred to a new district under the state statute, all those new districts would need their own administration, including a superintendent.

How all these factors would affect Carbon School District would remain to be seen. Carbon itself could experience a growth spurt due to the energy industry taking off or some other factor. Politics in the state could change with public education becoming more of a priority than it already is. And the creation of new school districts, could affect the overall state funding dollars for schools across the state.

The outcome is unclear, but funding will continue in one form or another with minor and major changes made to the basic school program throughout the years.

Editors note: Today's story is the final installment of four articles on public school system finance.

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