ST. GEORGE — In response to budget cuts to education moving through the legislature, a petition to protect teacher salaries is garnering thousands of signatures across the state.
The writer of the petition, teacher Debbie Cluff, told St. George News that she was only expecting to get around 200 signatures, but every day she finds the number of signatures has risen a thousand from the previous day and is now over 41,000 signatures.
“I started the petition when I found out they were going to cut different education factors,” the elementary school teacher in Lehi said. “I saw a few things on there, and having been in education since ’99, I kind of know the direction that a lot of the districts and charters usually go and I wanted more people to be aware of that.”
Two of the items included in the cuts that most concerned Cluff were the educator salary adjustments and elimination of the Teachers Student Success Act.
In the cut recommendations approved by the Utah State Board of Education, educator salary adjustments are up for a 2% reduction. The Teacher Student Success Act would be eliminated, which is money schools have the authority to allocate. Cluff said this would take $500 off her base pay. The lower class size item is also recommended to be eliminated.
The petition is asking that the state board and legislators mandate that teacher’s pay cannot be cut, Cluff said.
“The problem is that teacher pay is not consistent across the state,” she said. “You don’t know how the districts and the charter schools are going to use the money.”
Even without a pay reduction, some teachers have already been reaching into their own pockets to acquire supplies for their students, such as Hayley Winslow, a K-5 music teacher for the Washington County School District. She told St. George News she spent around $1000 last year to obtain needed materials.
Rep. Lawry Snow, who serves on the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which is where the recommended budget cuts are currently being reviewed, told St. George News that he is aware of the concern being expressed about the cuts in education and shares those concerns.
“But the reality is our economy is being affected tremendously by this COVID crisis, and in turn that is affecting and will affect tax revenues that have funded public education and funded all state services. It’s one of the most challenging tasks that we’ve had to deal with, is where do we make those cuts.”
While much of the focus has been turned to the possibility of a 10% cut, Snow said in his opinion he doesn’t expect them to be looking anywhere near that for education. Nor does he expect to see a reduction in teacher salaries.
They are considering the possibility of utilizing some of the rainy day fund, but that won’t be determined until after the end of this fiscal year, he said.
“We have to do everything we can to protect the continuity of our public education system, which means protecting teachers. They are at the foundation,” he said. “They are the fundamental element that provides the services for our young people. If we start cutting teacher’s salaries, we lose part of our foundation.”
Legislators are looking at creating more flexibility in the law that would free up some of the resources available to local districts. Some funds are sitting with districts not being used because they don’t have a need in that particular area.
“So one of the things we’re looking at doing is passing legislation that would create more flexibility for utilizing those resources,” Snow said. “At this time, we don’t need unused funds sitting in the coffers of local districts.”
It’s still too early to tell just how much the state’s budget will be cut, Sen. Evan Vickers told St. George News. The best-case scenario is that the 2021 budget will be $600 million short and worst-case $1.3 billion short, he said.
“Ten years ago, when we faced a similar crisis during that recession, the legislature was very careful to do everything we could to hold public education harmless. We gave each district more flexibility in how to use their money allowing them to plug any unique holes they may be facing.”
Vickers also pointed out that while the attitude is to limit any cuts that have to go to education, it’s important to note they are more limited than the federal government.
“It won’t be easy as the reality is that if the state doesn’t have the money then we can’t spend it. We are constitutionally required to balance our budget unlike the federal government, who literally has the ability to print money.”
Snow said the most devastating cut in the budget would be cuts to salaries that would cause a loss of teachers.
“Next to parents and family, they (teachers) are the most influential over the success of a child, not just during their academic student life, but for their future. If we don’t take care of our teachers, then we’re really in trouble.”
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