SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers overseeing the state's budget gave early approval on Wednesday to a plan that would give K-12 teachers a $1,500 bonus for their hard work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there's a catch.
And that's putting pressure on the Salt Lake City School District to provide options for in-person learning in all its schools by Jan. 19.
In its vote to recommend the Utah Legislature appropriate $121 million to a one-time "COVID-19 educator assistance stipend" — $1,500 for teachers and $1,000 for school staff — the Executive Appropriations Committee included a last-minute tweak to require the payment only goes to teachers offering in-person learning or some combination of in-person and virtual learning before Jan. 19, 2021.
That language proposed by House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, in the final moments before the committee was set to vote appeared to have caught some Democratic lawmakers off guard, who said it was unfairly "targeting" the Salt Lake City School District and "punishing" teachers for a school board decision in an area that has been a hot spot for COVID-19 cases.
"This is really frustrating for me," said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who represents constituents in the Salt Lake District, questioning why her district is being "targeted because they're complying with health guidelines and they want to make sure that they're protecting our students and our families."
Lawmakers including Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, shared Romero's concerns. Escamilla pointed out the high school her son attends, West High School in Salt Lake City, has "absolutely no way" to social distance students in the aging building.
But Wilson said he is trying to address concerns with students who are "falling behind" without in-person learning. He pointed to news reports of over 4,000 junior high and high school students who have received an F or incomplete grade during the first quarter of school — up from 1,506 a year ago, according to school district data.
"The intent of this is to help focus on what's in the best interest of kids and kids' education," Wilson said. "We've all seen with alarm how some of our students are falling behind. And so I would just say the same thing I said earlier. Salt Lake School District could find ways, like other school districts have done, between now and Jan. 19 to safety do in-person instruction. And I think that's the intent."
Wilson added the aim isn't to "not pay" the stipend to Salt Lake teachers and staff.
"I think we'd love to pay this to Salt Lake School District, and every school district in the state," he said. "We want every educator and every custodian and every secretary in the state to receive this. We're just trying to balance the needs of the students and what's in the best interests of students' education at the same time."
Salt Lake District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said the district shares Speaker Wilson's goal to bring students back into the classroom and indicated the district is looking to expand in-person learning. The decision to offer remote learning at the beginning of the year was based on COVID-19 health data, and since then the board has had the goal to bring students back in the classroom "as soon as it is safe to do so in our city," she said.
"With news this week about the prioritization of vaccines for educators, our internal conversations at the district level have turned now to looking at ways to offer an in-person learning option for our secondary students sooner than we expected," Chatwin said, noting that the board has allowed in-person learning to take place at all 40 district schools in small groups.
"As we look to in-person learning options for all our students, it is crucial to recognize the work of our educators and school staff throughout the pandemic and throughout the remote learning period," she added. "Their efforts have been Herculean and are worthy of recognition. To hear anyone insinuate otherwise is shocking."
Chatwin said the district "looks forward to working with the Legislature" in the upcoming session "to continue to improve educational opportunities for our students and to recognize the work of all educators and school staff."
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the aim of the stipend is to "express our gratitude by monetarily rewarding educators and school staff for their extraordinary efforts, innovation and resilience in overcoming the unique and ever-changing challenges this year."
"Utahns and Utah businesses' financial and physical well-being are the top priority for state lawmakers, which is why we pushed to keep the economy open while protecting individuals' health," Adams said. "The Legislature is committed to keeping our commitment to increase, protect and stabilize education funding, replenish contingency plans and plan for Utah's future. I firmly believe our best days are still ahead of us."
The Executive Appropriations Committee, with some Democrats voting against the motion, voted to adopt that intent language on the $121 million appropriation. It is subject to approval by the full Utah Legislature in its upcoming general session set to begin Jan. 19.
Some lawmakers, including Escamilla, wondered if the language was broad enough to actually qualify the Salt Lake School District for the stipend, pointing out some teachers who teach special needs children are already offering in-person learning for those select students. It's a "devils in the details" issue that will need to be hashed out, she said.
Before the Executive Appropriations Committee voted on approving the revenue, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox tweeted he supported the Legislature's plan, which arose in recent closed-door caucus meetings.
"As we have been frantically working on a budget proposal, (Lt. Gov.-elect Deidre Henderson) & I felt strongly we needed to reward teachers and school workers for their heroic work — Legislative leadership agreed," Cox tweeted, noting that they made the proposal this week "and it has been accepted by the Legislature."
Cox added: "The cool thing about this is that, when we presented our idea, legislative leadership said they had been working on a similar concept. The legislature has really worked hard over the past few years to increase school funding and deserves credit for making significant progress."
In a prepared statement issued later Wednesday, Cox said the pandemic has "put extraordinary strain on our entire education community, including school janitors, cafeteria workers, nurses, counselors, bus drivers, and especially our teachers."
"It's taken courage, creativity, patience and perseverance to get through this year, and it's not over yet," he said. "These frontline workers have earned our heightened respect, but they deserve tangible rewards as well. That's why I'm so grateful to House and Senate leaders for joining us in providing these extra payments to school personnel. We honor and thank them for their remarkable efforts this year."
Cox, through his spokeswoman, declined to comment on Wilson's move attaching strings to the stipend,
In earlier discussions during the committee meeting, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, applauded legislative leaders for not only setting aside the money for the stipend, but also $140.5 million to fund a weighted pupil unit increase of 6% — more than the Utah State Board of Education's request of 4%.
They also recommended $95 million to fund growth and inflation in the public education base budget, which legislative leaders said helps "fulfill the Legislature's promise to education" after voters approved Constitutional Amendment G this year. The amendment expands use of income tax for programs for kids and the disabled instead of setting aside the money just for education. Lawmakers sought the amendment after their 2019 tax reform proposal failed.
"I will admit. I was a skeptic. I want to make clear you have proven me wrong," said Moss, who worked as a teacher for 33 years and whose daughter currently works as a teacher. She thanked legislative leaders and those who "helped make this happen."
"For decades as a teacher and then my time in the Legislature, I've been disappointed over and over again that sometimes promises were made and not kept," she added, but she said the investment this year signals teachers are indeed "very valued."
After the intent language was proposed, Moss said she "agreed" that "kids ought to be taught in schools." But she said it concerned her that teachers will be "punished" for a decision made by the Salt Lake City School Board.
"I'd hate to see those teachers demoralized because it really is a school board issue, isn't it?" she said.
Wilson emphasized, again, that the Salt Lake City School District has time before Jan. 19 to qualify all of its teachers for the stipend.
The plan to commit more dollars for education was unveiled after state budget staff presented initial revenue estimates to the Executive Appropriation Committee on Wednesday. The committee approved those revenue estimates, in consensus with the Governor's Office and Tax Commission, announcing the state will see a 1.5% increase in revenue in the current 2021 fiscal year and a 6.5% increase in the 2022 fiscal year — better than expected amid the pandemic's downturn.
State fiscal analysts said that's likely due partly because of federal assistance, including CARES Act funding, that provided between $10 billion and $12 billion worth of aid in Utah's economy this year. That one-time federal stimulus accounted for about $450 million of new ongoing revenue, fiscal analysts estimate.
There are still some risks that could complicate Utah's economy and the state's revenue, analysts noted, including if Congress fails in its current negotiations to provide more stimulus checks to Americans. The ongoing surge of COVID-19 in Utah could also chill consumer confidence, however, the vaccine could help re-open the economy, analysts said.
"Years of preparation, planning and saving enabled Utah to be the envy of most other states," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee. "Despite COVID-19 challenges, the Legislature's budget priorities will remain consistent: supporting and investing in public education statewide while working to protect Utah's private and public sectors. Because of responsible policy decisions in prosperous times and setting aside revenue into savings, we are able to continue investing in Utah's future today. We must continue to act responsibly to strengthen our economy, families and communities as we move forward during these uncertain times."
The committee recommendations take the "long view," said Co-Chairman Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane. "We hope the Legislature's continued prioritization of our public education system and appreciation for the people who make it work is evident in these budget decisions."