SALT LAKE CITY — Funding charter schools has surfaced again at the Utah Legislature and the debate is likely to heat up in the last days of the 2011 session as lawmakers hammer out solutions to funding public education.
Charter school funding has fueled much last-minute debate in recent sessions, and this year appears no different. Last session, the governor had to intervene on the contentious issue so the session could adjourn. This past week, options for funding charter schools have been debated in closed House caucus meetings.
"The strategy with charter school funding, at least for the last three years, has been to wait until the last hours of the session," said Todd Hauber, associate superintendent for business services at the State Office of Education. "This year isn't feeling any different."
The debate became public Friday when a school district funding bill opponents say is part of a two-pronged plan to give more money to charter schools was passed out of a House committee.
HB301, sponsored by Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, would consolidate the 13 different tax levies school districts now have available into just six.
Newbold said her intent is to "simply to allow greater flexibility with the school districts and to simplify education funding."
"There's nothing in this bill that automatically raises taxes," she told the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
But Patti Harrington, a former state superintendent and current lobbyist for the Utah School Boards Association, said the bill is part of a push to get local districts to fund charter school's more than they already are, possibly through property tax increases.
Harrington believes the bill is tied to HB313, which would gradually send more local district revenues to charter schools over a 13-year-period while decreasing state revenues allocated to charters.
Charter schools are currently funded by state income tax based on enrollment, but they don't receive local property taxes in the same manner traditional public schools do. Currently, the state has what's called a "local replacement fund," which is designed to make up for 75 percent of the the money charter schools don't get in local taxes.
Districts pay a portion of their local revenues to the state to make up the remaining 25 percent, which then distributes the money to charter schools throughout the state.
"The charter school population is growing by leaps and bounds," Newbold said, explaining the rationale for HB313. "Effectively, (districts) aren't paying very much."
According to Newbold's bill, what districts pay to the state would be based on the number of students in their district who attend charter schools, which at the end of 13 years would add up to more than the 25 percent districts currently provide.
"Should the state pay them off the top and take money from all the districts," Newbold said, "or should (the districts) pay proportionately to the benefit they're getting."
Newbold's levy consolidation bill passed out of committee and now goes to the House. But her charter school overhaul hasn't been heard in a House committee yet, but with only nine days left in the session, time to to vet it is dwindling.
The aspect of the levy consolidation bill that worries Harrington the most is it allows for a year-long suspension of truth-in-taxation hearings, which are required for public input to proposed tax increases.
Harrington said that troubles her because districts could increase taxes during the suspension to account for the money they would have to send to charter schools under HB313. They could do so that first year without holding public hearings on the take hike.
"We worry terribly this will raise property taxes," Harrington told the committee.
Newbold responded that the two bills are completely unrelated.
"I'm amazed there has been any connection made to those bills," she said. "That is not the intent of the sponsor and is poppycock."