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Politics & Government

How will Utah’s education budget tackle staff shortages and large class sizes?

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Advocates worry current teacher and staff shortages will get worse without increased education funding and support for educators.

Utah’s public education system is expected to get another sizable budget increase this year, thanks largely to legislation in 2020 that guaranteed funding increases to account for enrollment growth and inflation.

That — along with increased revenue from local property tax increases — will add at least $248 million to the state’s public education budget. That brings the state’s education spending to around $4.2 billion this year.

Additional requests from groups like the Utah State Board of Education, Utah Education Association and the Utah School Boards Association could add hundreds of millions more.

USBE chair Mark Huntsman said while schools are struggling to control the wide-ranging and ongoing impacts of the pandemic, they also have pressing concerns around record-high inflation and staffing shortages.

”There is a war on talent right now,” Huntsman said in the board’s January meeting. “With everything that is happening with this robust economy, about the only way to hang on to that talent is on the wage side.”

Huntsman said USBE’s own staff is getting “poached” by the private sector, leaving public education in favor of more lucrative opportunities.

One of the top funding priorities outlined by USBE is an additional $186 million to increase the weighted pupil unit, or WPU. That’s the foundation of the state’s funding system and the least restrictive source of funding for public schools.

USBE is also asking for $30 million for additional paid preparation days for educators, $6 million for USBE staff salary increases and $5 million for school transportation to help with driver shortages and rising fuel costs.

None of the current proposals, however, tackle what Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said is parents’ top concern — large class sizes. The most obvious way to remedy that is by hiring more teachers, which would require much higher increases than what is currently on the table.

Riebe said it’s a difficult problem to solve, but it should be a priority. She said smaller class sizes would allow teachers to focus more on their students and reduce the need for additional resource officers and other support staff.

“I think it’s the most important thing we can do for our students,” she said. “Class sizes are 30 [students] in elementary schools to upwards of 40 in high school. When you have 30-something kids in elementary school, you have no relationship with them and you're constantly just doing crowd control.”

Heidi Matthews, the leader of the state’s largest teachers’ union, said she’s hopeful an additional increase to the WPU could help make teacher salaries more competitive. Additional paid prep time could also help alleviate some of the stress they’re dealing with.

But she said she worries that while funding increases are coming, other efforts threaten to add more burden on educators. She pointed to bills that overturn mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties and officially suspend the state’s Test to Stay program.

“Retention is the best recruitment,” she said. “Take care of the people who have invested in this career and that will go a long way in bringing more into the profession.”

Other priorities highlighted in education budget requests include making all-day kindergarten available across the state, eliminating curricular fees and school building upgrades.

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