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John Wilson, KSL TV, File

State School Board recommends up to $382 million in budget cuts in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL | Posted - May 22, 2020 at 9:33 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — What a difference a couple of months and a worldwide pandemic make.

Utah educators were flying high when the Legislature’s 2020 General Session adjourned in March and lawmakers had appropriated record levels of ongoing funding to Utah public schools and funded many of the Utah State Board of Education’s priorities such as early learning and improved training for school principals.

But on Thursday, the board found itself in the uncomfortable position of debating recommendations to Utah lawmakers for cuts to the $3.8 billion base budget for public education in the face of economic instability brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, addressing the Utah State Board of Education, likened a 2% budget cut to a flesh wound, where a 5% reduction would require stitches, “and then with 10%, it feels like we’re cutting into bone.”

Whether it is a cut to the flesh or to the bone, the state board enters this exercise of recommending cuts knowing “all will scar and how long will it take us to recover from that,” she said.

The board agreed to three scenarios of reductions to the base budget, representing 2%, 5% and 10% cuts, which came to $76 million, $225.7 million and $381.6 million, respectively.

Recommended cuts

Some of the recommendations were haircuts, such as a $1,080 reduction for fine arts outreach, to proposing a 100% cut of nearly $150 million for class size reduction, which would effectively eliminate the program.

Other programs recommended for 100% cuts included $18.9 million for the Teacher Salary Supplement Program, which pays bonuses to teachers of mathematics, some sciences, computer science and special education.

The board also approved recommendations for 100% reductions of $2.8 million for special education intensive services; $8 million for charter school administration; $7.8 million for “flexible allocation”; $1.15 million for its foreign exchange program; and $350,000 for a reading difficulties program, among others.

The board agreed to 100% cuts to programs and initiatives in each of the three scenarios of reductions and noted that some of the programs recommended for the deepest cuts were created under state statutes.

Another program recommended for a deep cut was the Teacher and Student Success Act, with the board approving a reduction of nearly $99 million in ongoing and one-time funding. The program appropriates funding directly to schools, which create plans intended to improve academic performance.

One-time funding request

The board also agreed to ask lawmakers to appropriate $4 million in one-time funding to improve schools’ financial information systems, as called for under HB67, passed earlier this year. Once implemented, the system should pay for itself, said board member Cindy Davis.

The board’s recommendations will be forwarded to the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which is scheduled to meet next week to consider and recommend to legislative leaders cuts to the public education base budget.

Overall, state lawmakers are expected to consider slashing as much as $2 billion from the $20 billion state budget set to take effect July 1 because of the economic impact of the pandemic.

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