Local educators visit state lawmakers to discuss school-related legislation

At the beginning of each year, Utah legislators meet to make decisions on a number of bills that affect communities throughout the state. Public education is frequently impacted by the decisions made by lawmakers during that time, especially decisions related to testing, school funding and teacher licensing requirements. In 2016, 163 education-related bills were introduced to the Utah Legislature.

According to Grand County Board of Education member Jim Webster, as of early February this year, 105 education-related bills had been introduced to the Legislature. Webster said that number is high.

“With this huge volume of education bills, it is extremely difficult for anyone, including sitting legislators, to keep track of what is happening. There are a very few people in Utah who are able to keep track of these as they move very quickly from introduction to passage or defeat,” Webster said. “Education bills often get passed without a lot of vetting due to this volume.”

In mid-February, several educators from Grand County headed to Salt Lake City to take part in Educators Day on the Hill. With help from Chase Clyde, a Grand County High School alumni who is now the director of government relations and political action for the Utah Education Association, educators were given the opportunity to learn more about the education-related bills being considered this session, as well as speak with elected representatives about their concerns.

“The major focus of the trip was to build relationships with our congress people,” Grand County High School teacher Hank Postma said. “We were able to have great conversations with all of them and advocate for Grand County School District.”

Postma, who is also the president of the local chapter of the UEA, said the educators were particularly concerned about Senate Bill 80. SB80, titled School Funding Amendments, originally contemplated taking one-third of any future increases to the weighted pupil unit (WPU) from school districts with high property values like Grand County and reallocating that money to districts that are deemed as having low property values, such as the Alpine School District.

That’s one of the reasons that Grand County Middle School teacher Sophia Sopuch made the journey to Utah’s Capitol Hill. Sopuch said that while in Salt Lake City representatives from UEA helped the educators to understand the significance of the relevant bills. After learning more about SB80, Sopuch said she was concerned about the loss of resources for the Grand County School District.

“They think we’re a rich district even though we’re in the Title 1 program,” Sopuch said. “Fifty percent of our students are low-income, but with this program, we wouldn’t be getting the same funding as other districts.”

Since the beginning of the 2017 legislative session, the bill has been significantly changed, eliminating the language that would have re-appropriated one-third of future WPU increases. However, Webster said the bill would likely still be detrimental for Grand County. He said the bill has changed many times, and no one is entirely sure what it will look like in the end.

“I’m against it because of this uncertainty, “ he said. “I’m afraid it will be launched out of committee in the last week when the rules are suspended, meaning a committee doesn’t need to approve it. Who knows what it will look like? But we would likely ‘lose’ whatever form it takes.”

Helen M. Knight Elementary School teacher Jill Tatton said she attended Educator Day on the Hill to be better informed about the bills affecting schools. Tatton said she also wanted to speak to state representatives about the needs and problems that are specific to Moab. “I … wanted to tell our representatives that we work just as hard in a rural community as the educators in the cities do, with a lot less money,” Tatton said.

“I was impressed with how they really wanted to hear, from a teacher’s perspective within their districts, what we were seeing and what we needed,” GCHS English teacher Alanna Simmons-Cameron said. “I believe strongly that educators need to communicate with lawmakers about drafting educational policy. We are, after all, the ones that will be implementing it, and we are the ones who, day in and day out, teach America’s youth.”

For Simmons-Cameron, the day was also an opportunity to become more involved in the democratic process.

“It’s too easy to read articles about laws that have been passed, decisions that have been made and feel a sense of inert frustration. I think that’s the common default,” she said. “Yet we have agency as inhabitants of a democratic country to get our voice heard, and I would argue that it’s our moral obligation to do just that.”

Simmons-Cameron said voting is one important way for people to make their voices heard, but not the only way. “We also all need to communicate with our elected leaders about our concerns and hopes, and I don’t think there’s such a thing as being too involved. It’s too easy to do nothing,” she said.

Sopuch said she learned a great deal during the trip. “It was so informative of the process,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on that I’d never even heard about … A lot of the bills coming up support school districts in Salt Lake but don’t do anything to help our district.”

Simmons-Cameron said that the opportunity gave her renewed appreciation for government.

“Every middle-schooler should get a day at Utah’s capital building,” she said. “I came away with renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for the impossible experiment begun long ago by our Founding Fathers: that the people can and should govern themselves. As we all know, it’s a messy process, but a righteous one.”

“My colleagues as a force view teaching as a calling, one that is often undervalued and even mocked within our larger culture, but one that is worth investing one’s life force into infinitely,” Simmons-Cameron added. “The youth are the future. Each one deserves teachers who are qualified, passionate and invested. These same teachers see the needs of our students as no one else can. We have a moral obligation to communicate those needs to our elected representatives. I had the opportunity to do just that at Educator on the Hill Day, and I come away from the experience with a renewed sense of my rights and responsibilities as a member of a democracy.”

Sopuch said the experience was a good one, in part because it was so well organized. “It’s definitely something I’d want to do again,” she said, adding that Clyde’s help was very much appreciated.

Tatton agreed, “It was an excellent experience to attend Educator Day on the Hill, especially to have a former Grand County graduate, Chase Clyde, with his vast knowledge, lead us around the Capitol and help us have a positive impact on education for our community,” she said.

For people looking for more ways to get involved, Sopuch said they were told to send mail.

“The biggest piece of advice we were given was to send a piece of mail to our representatives voicing our concerns,” she said.

Local residents are represented by Utah Reps. Carl Albrecht, Christine Watkins or Mike Noel (San Juan County), as well as Sen. David Hinkins.