EDUCATION & SCHOOLS

Tooele School District faces massive funding cut, pleads with legislature not to pull funding

Dec 14, 2023, 6:37 PM | Updated: 7:35 pm

TOOELE COUNTY — The Tooele School District is pleading with state lawmakers not to pull $50 million from their current school funding budget.

Earlier this year, Tooele severed ties with an online school called MyTech High, and 8,000 students went with it to the Nebo School District, who picked up the program.

“We’re in the middle of a school year in the middle of the game, and the rules of the game have changed in our game plan that we’ve had for this entire school year, said Tooele Superintendent Dr. Mark Ernst.

Utah law stipulates that schools are funded based on the prior year’s enrollment plus growth, and it outlines how to calculate that. It also says schools can keep funding in a current year if enrollment drops.

It’s the language of the law that’s at the center of the disagreement.

The legislature argues that when enrollment drops for factors “beyond the control” of the district, funding stays. In Tooele ‘s case, legislative leaders called it a “business decision.”

Ernst argues that Utah law has historically allowed for schools to keep funding despite declining enrollment.

“I do not have a problem with them amending the code if codes need to be updated. I understand that needs to happen. Where I have my issues is I think that if we’re going to change that code, that it should be it should go into effect next fiscal year instead of five months into a current fiscal year,” he said.

The $50 million hit is massive; Ernst said it’s about a quarter of their overall budget. He said the district is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

“We’re trying to protect our employees and their pay, and we’re trying to do what’s best for our students. We have two schools right now that are under construction, and we are looking at possibly having to stop construction on those schools in the late opening of those schools because it’s such a large amount of money,” he said.

A sign promoting one of the new schools being built in the Tooele School District.

A sign promoting one of the new schools being built in the Tooele School District. (KSL TV)

Legislative leaders say they based their decision on their interpretation of the law.

The law reads, “To avoid penalizing a school district financially for an excessive loss in student enrollment due to factors beyond its control, the state board may allow a percentage increase in units otherwise allowable during any year when a school district’s average daily membership drops more than 4% below the average for the highest two of the preceding three years in the school district.”

Rep. Val Peterson, the chair of the powerful Executive Appropriations Committee, says Tooele’s decision to sever ties with MyTech was not “beyond their control.”

“Tooele made a business decision to end its contract with MyTech High while Nebo School District expanded its existing contract with MyTech. Therefore, the funding will move with MyTech High students to the Nebo School District. The state will not be double funding students through both Tooele and Nebo as previously presumed by some,” Peterson said.

Ernst hopes there’s still time for a compromise.

“I would love for them to reinstate that money. At the very least, sit down with us, and talk with us and say, what do you need?” he said.

Ernst said he wasn’t sure how likely the legislature would be able to do that.

The Executive Appropriations Committee is in the process of adding clarifying language to the education base budget so this can be explicitly stated.

A committee recently recommended this change, “Amend statute…to clarify that the prior year plus growth hold harmless applies to enrollment changes due to factors beyond control of an LEA determined enrollment reductions (i.e. ending a contractual relationship),” it wrote in the Dec. 5 EAC Committee meeting.

“Make the statutory change effective for current-year (FY 2024 funding distributions),” the recommendation said.

Ernst argues the old standard should be applied.

“We want to be treated fairly as every other school district has been treated when they have experienced declining enrollment,” he said.

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Tooele School District faces massive funding cut, pleads with legislature not to pull funding