by Howard Stephenson
During the last five months the Utah Legislature successfully resolved a revenue shortfall of nearly $400 million in the 2002 state budget (which ends June 30), without a tax increase. This is a huge difference from the tax increases of the 1986 legislature. The state faced a similar economic downturn sixteen years ago but the legislature solved the budget shortfall back then in part with a $202 million tax increase.
In late June and early July the legislature is planning to meet in a special session to solve a projected 2003 budget shortfall of $173 million. Utah’s education community is already expressing concern about potential cuts in public education funding. Some districts have announced that if education is to receive its proportionate 45% share of trimming, class sizes will have to increase significantly and hundreds of teaching positions will have to be eliminated.
But any predictions of drastic education cuts just don’t add up, especially given the history of how the legislature dealt with education in the 2002 budget trimming. It could have been reasonably expected, since most of the $400 million 2002 budget problem resulted from shortfalls in taxes earmarked for education, that most of the spending cuts would be made in the education budget. From another perspective, since public education comprises 45% of the state’s combined education and general fund budgets, it could be reasonably expected that public education would receive 45% of the cuts.
But because the legislature was convinced that public education continued to be a top priority, the cuts in 2002 education spending amounted to approximately $40 million, or just 10% of the total. Additionally, in addressing the ongoing revenue shortfall the new 2003 public education budget is down just 1.7% from the original 2002 budget.
From the negative feedback and criticism legislators have received about these cuts from many in the education community, I don’t think many educators have any idea how fortunate they were that the Utah Legislature is committed to holding education relatively harmless.
In fact, the past decade has shown the legislature to have been very generous with public school funding. Since 1992, education funding has increased $1 billion or 82% while student enrollments have increased only 6% and inflation has been just 32%. This has enabled Utah schools to reduce class sizes to just 20.7 students per teacher and has produced increases in teacher salaries and benefits, ranking Utah total teacher compensation highest of all six neighboring states.
Utah’s 40 local school boards are currently in the process of setting budgets for the 2003 school year and many are talking about drastic cuts in teaching staff and increases in class sizes. One large district has suggested that it may have to reduce teaching staff by 8%. Observers wonder how a 1.7% cut in overall spending can translate into an 8% reduction in number of teachers. Districts claim that there are increasing costs of operations and maintenance. They’re right, but these costs are not beyond their control.
One of the biggest yet little-known annual cost increases is the automatic step and lane changes built into district salary schedules. These automatic pay raises are on top of the usual cost-of-living adjustments. Steps – which are given to all teachers who are not at the top of the salary schedule – typically increase salaries by 4% to 6% each year. Lane changes – which are given for advanced college education – typically range from 2% to 5%. These automatic increases add about $20 million or more each year to state wide education budgets and in lean years like these, cause class sizes to increase or other student-related services to suffer.
In these years of low inflation and revenue shortfalls, automatic pay raises are inappropriate. When you hear that no cost-of-living adjustments are being given this year, remember, it doesn’t mean teachers are not getting pay raises.
by Howard Stephenson