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Politics & Government

Utah Legislative Committee Approves $1,500 Bonus For Educators In Districts With In-Person Learning

Black teacher with a face mask explaining exam results to elementary student in the classroom.
Drazen Zigic
/
iStockphoto
A Utah legislative committee approved $121 million for one-time teacher bonuses.

Utah teachers and support staff would receive a one-time bonus as a thank you for working during the COVID-19 pandemic, under a proposal passed Wednesday by the state Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee.

Teachers would get a $1,500 stipend, while staff would get $1,000.

“Our teachers ... are on the front lines right now in the classroom and the staff in these schools [are] dealing with the disruption, dealing with the uncertainty and the risk,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “I'd like to do more, but this is a step in the right direction to thank and reward those teachers for the great work that they've done.”

The committee set aside $121 million for the bonuses, which still has to be approved by the full Legislature after it reconvenes on.

However, under an amendment Wilson introduced, teachers in districts that had not offered in-person learning to all of its students at some point before January 19 would be excluded from the bonuses. The only district that applies to is Salt Lake City.

“The intent of this is to help focus on what's in the best interest of kids and the kids' education, and we've all seen with alarm how some of our students are falling behind,” Wilson said, pointing to a Salt Lake Tribune report that found the number of middle and high school students in the Salt Lake City School District who received at least one F in the first quarter of this school year is 60% higher than last year.

Salt Lake City School District plans to bring elementary students back starting the week of Jan. 25, but have not made plans to bring back 7th grade and above. Students and parents held a rally Dec. 7 demanding that middle and high schoolers be allowed to have in-person class. On Monday, families filed a lawsuit against the districts demanding a return to school.

“We'd love to pay this to the Salt Lake School District,” Wilson said, adding that teachers in that district could still get the bonus if in-person instruction is offered before the deadline.

The motion passed, but Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said teachers shouldn’t be punished for decisions made by the school board.

“I know one teacher … that teaches in Salt Lake District and I see things he puts online — he makes videos, he does all these creative things for his students to interact with them,” Moss said. “Not because he doesn't want them there, but they're not allowed to come. And I’d hate to see those teachers demoralized.”

Republican Gov.-elect Spencer Cox applauded the proposed teacher bonus in a statement, but declined to comment on Wilson’s proposal.

Salt Lake City school district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said she was shocked when Wilson introduced the amendment.

“It's definitely shocking to go in a meeting from having our representatives touting the great work our educators have done, speaking about how this $1,500 stipend is not enough — and then to hear that the work that educators in the Salt Lake City school district has put in is not as valuable because of the learning mode,” Chatwin said.

The school board wants to bring back students when it's safe, she said, but the city has some of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the state.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, called the decision to exclude Salt Lake City teachers “hypocritical.” She said UEA had originally tried to take the decision about returning to in-person learning out of the hands of school boards.

“We weren't successful in doing that because of the argument that local districts, local boards, they know what's best for their local areas,” she said. “So it's entirely inconsistent, and dare I say hypocritical, for a Legislature to now say to a local [board] who has made a locally based decision that they don't like it and so therefore are going to institute some changes that make the district go in a direction that they hadn't locally decided.”

But Matthews also applauded the “astounding” initial investment of $400 million in public education the Executive Appropriations Committee approved Wednesday. That includes a 6% increase in the per student funding that school districts receive. UEA originally negotiated for that increase in March, but it was rolled back during mass budget cuts over the summer.

Matthews said she’s thrilled the Legislature was able to still fulfill that promise.

“[The per student funding is] designed to give our districts the most flexibility that they can have to be able to put those funds to where their greatest needs are,” she said. “Our districts have the greatest needs to hire more people, increase salaries, address the working conditions that have been so difficult for our teachers and educators in the pandemic.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, like Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, agreed.

“Putting in place a funding framework that supports public education in our state, which is a high priority to our constituents, is extremely important and really sets public education on a firm foundation,” Millner said.

All budget decisions made by the Executive Appropriations Committee Wednesday need to be approved by the full Legislature after it reconvenes.

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