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West Valley City Journal

GSD Board discusses surplus, salaries and strategies for COVID-19 second wave

Jun 29, 2020 10:36AM ● By Heather Lawrence

A slide from the Granite School District’s budget presentation in June.

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

A live-streamed Granite School District Board meeting on June 16 was an important one for the coming school year. The 2019-20 budget was reconciled, and the budget for 2020-21 was proposed. One main finding was GSD’s surplus from activities that were canceled at the end of the year. There was also a discussion about learning scenarios during a COVID-19 spike. 

Mitch Robison, director of Budget Development, called it a “weird year for everything, including the budget.” Robison said though the legislature has met and allocated funds for schools, the Board anticipates a special session where education funding may be adjusted. 

The last day of the legislative session was March 12. Schools closed on March 13. The closure was meant to last two weeks, but went through the end of the school year. 

The canceled activities came with a silver lining: less money spent. There was also a “savings” on wage payments when some employees decided to leave early. The official amount of one-time savings will be known in September or October.    

Despite the uncertainty of the year, the Board is obligated to follow a timeline. GSD met the requirements to publish the proposed 2020-21 budget online and advertise the hearing, get public input, adopt the budget and set a tax rate for the coming school year. 

The proposed 2020-21 budget is $854 million. The biggest piece of the pie is the General Fund, which pays out teacher compensation. 

Robison said the General Fund “is really dependent on the legislature…and 90% of it goes for salaries and benefits.” GSD proposed a raise for new teachers and a 5% COLA (cost of living adjustment). Incoming qualified teachers with a bachelor’s degree will start at $50,000+ per year. That makes GSD “competitive with their neighbors” such as Canyons District, which adopted a similar pay scale for 2019-20. 

The closing of two schools, Sandburg and Westbrook, each represent a savings of $700,000. GSD must hire two PBAT internal support employees at $200,000 to help transition to the new PBAT state licensure program. Seventy-five million dollars was requested for health insurance costs. 

The 2020-21 proposed tax rate is .007429%. The time was opened for comments from the public. Director of Communications Ben Horsley reported that no one from the public had come in person to comment or sent in comments. The Board motioned to adopt the budget. 

The topic of the meeting shifted to how COVID-19 may affect learning in 2020-21. There was discussion over what was necessary—was the requirement masks or physical distancing, or masks and physical distancing? 

John Welburn, assistant superintendent of School Leadership & Development, gave a presentation on possible learning scenarios based on the color code for Utah. Different schools could be in different colors. 

Utah experienced an increase in cases after trying to reopen. The date of the meeting, June 16, Salt Lake County was in the yellow phase, but Salt Lake City, where many GSD schools are located, was back in the orange phase. 

In the scenario, schools would operate as normal during a green phase. The yellow phase could be a hybrid of in-school learning and distance learning, such as half the students attending school on Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday, and distance learning for all on Fridays. Orange and red phases would mean distance learning only for all students.  

Board members questioned aspects of the scenarios. There are potential difficulties for families with parents working full-time, those who utilize day care, have children at multiple schools on possible different schedules or those with limited access to computers and internet. 

Some parents may not feel comfortable sending children to school at all, even in a green phase. Students with special needs may be highly vulnerable and fall in high-risk health categories. 

Welburn said he gets comments from community members to, “Just do this, just do that,” and the schools should work fine. “What people need to understand is that we don’t have the authority to make those decisions. We are required to comply with policies. And we will always put the safety of our students first.”  

In addition, Welburn reported that the average class size at the secondary level is 38 students. “You can’t do face-to-face instruction with that many students and do 6 feet apart,” Welburn said. 

Board members questioned whether students could be compelled to wear a mask. There are also concerns about air turnover in classrooms. Guidance from the CDC seemed to be “a moving target.” Others worried that students might feel they need to leave GSD and register for a special online school instead of setting that up within the district.  

Despite sympathy for those who just want to get back to normal—students, parents, teachers—it is a time of uncertainty for face-to-face learning. “Regardless of the color phase we’re in, if distancing guidelines can be met, we’ll meet in school. If they can’t, we’ll have to do something else,” Welburn said.