15 Mar Shortfall Impacts South Utah EducationMarch 15, 2010
By: SCOTT KERBS Source: The Spectrum
ST. GEORGE – Faced with a potential $850 million shortfall, Utah lawmakers said they worked diligently to leave public education unharmed by sweeping budget cuts, with a reduction of less than 0.5 percent statewide, but school districts in Southern Utah are expected to suffer as a result of a lack of state funding for enrollment growth.
Reflecting the trying economic times, the Washington County School District is preparing to slash its budget by $3 to $5 million for the upcoming school year, said Superintendent Max Rose, potentially increasing class sizes and reducing the number of teachers.
"There is a chance that we might have to raise classroom sizes," he said "We might have to do some releasing of teachers, but we don’t want to do that."
Rose said the school district hopes to avoid such cuts by enacting furloughs for employees and eliminating certain programs, but that could prove insufficient.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said preserving the public education budget was a priority for Utah lawmakers, and while there are cuts, the budget reductions are far more severe in other areas.
"We had to make significant sacrifices elsewhere in order to keep public education largely whole," he said. "Public education is our most important budget line."
With no funding for enrollment growth and additional expenses for the state retirement system, the 0.5 percent budget reduction becomes an effective cut of 3.5 to 5 percent for the Washington County School District, said Brent Bills, business administrator for the school district.
Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said there was simply not enough room in the budget to allow for enrollment growth funding. "There wasn’t enough money to fund it," he said. "The funds just weren’t there." With approximately 87 percent of the Washington County School District budget allocated to salaries and benefits, Bills said it is difficult to envision a scenario in which employees are not released as a result of the budget cuts. Rose said no decisions have been made regarding the budget cuts and he expects to discuss the potential reductions at a Washington County School Board meeting next week.
The Iron County School District is also facing cuts, but Superintendent Jim Johnson said he does not plan to release any teachers. Instead, Johnson said the district hopes to address the budgetary issue by increasing class sizes and reducing school programs. In secondary Iron County schools, Johnson said he anticipates an increase of one student per classroom. "There is no question that it will have an impact (on students)," he said, but he expects the impact to be minimal.
Although both school districts are facing substantial budget cuts, officials applauded the Legislature for li miting the severity of the reductions.
"Even though there are some cuts and some reductions in place, it could have been a lot worse," Johnson said. Rose echoed a similar message, thanking lawmakers for making public education a priority despite the projected revenue shortfall.
"We could have taken a bigger cut," he said "They’ve done the best they can and we feel confident in that."
For lawmakers, the process of limiting public education cuts while formulating a balanced budget with no major tax increases was a difficult task, despite a substantial withdrawal from the state’s "rainy day" fund. "It was an extremely tough process," Ipson said. "Everyone worked hard to bring that together at a time when there was a tremendous shortfall." In addition to public education, the state’s higher education budget was reduced by 5 percent. When asked about the higher education cuts, Urquhart said he is concerned about potential impact on Dixie State College.
"I don’t feel good about that," he said. "That is a 5 percent cut at a time when the college is growing rapidly." In addition to public and higher education in Southern Utah, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department was also not immune to the sweeping cuts.
Dr. David Blodgett, director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said the organization’s state funding was reduced by an estimated 7 or 8 percent.
Although the Health Department receives the majority of its funding from federal sources, Blodgett said the state budget cuts only add to the organization’s diminishing financial support.
The budget cuts could force the Health Department to continue reducing its scope of se rvices and increasing fees for immunizations. In the past four years, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department has reduced its workforce by 25 percent.
"In an environment with less money, we offer fewer services," he said. "It is always hard."
Programs offered by the Utah Department of Human Services are also at risk as a result of budget cuts.
"There are definitely going to be some services that will be impacted," said Elizabeth Sollis, public information officer for the Department of Human Services.
In addition to a $1 million statewide reduction in substance abuse and mental health services, the department’s child and family services budget is also expected to lose a
substantial amount of funding, possibly forcing staff reductions in some areas.
As the state witnesses widespread budget cuts, Ipson said creating a balanced budget in an era rife with economic instability is a painful, but necessary, process.
Anticipating future revenue shortfalls, Ipson said state legislators saved approximately $210 million in a rainy day fund to fill future gaps in the state budget.
"I think there are still some storm clouds on the horizon," he said.