SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Brad Wilson defended his decision to cut Salt Lake City School District employees from COVID-19 stipends the legislature was handing out, unless students returned to in-classroom instruction.
In an interview with FOX 13 on Thursday, Speaker Wilson, R-Kaysville, acknowledged Salt Lake City district employees could be left out when the bonuses go into effect because they are online-only right now.
"That potentially could be the case. However, I hope that's not the case. I hope that we have all of our students in the state with the ability to have in-classroom instruction here in the beginning of 2021," he said.
The House Speaker reiterated his belief that every student should have an in-person learning experience. He pointed out that the legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee budgeted for $121 million every teacher to receive a $1,500 stipend and every school employee to receive $1,000 as a thanks. That includes Salt Lake City School District employees.
But they need to move from an online-only model to in-person or a mix of the two under a motion the Speaker introduced during a meeting on Wednesday. Salt Lake City area lawmakers questioned if the Speaker was singling them out and education groups have criticized the decision.
"This, at the end of the day, is about one thing: It’s about taking care of these kids and we of course want those teachers to receive this bonus and that is our hope, that is my expectation. We’ll see what happens," Speaker Wilson said.
Salt Lake City has stayed online-only because it is a hot spot for COVID-19. However, the school board recently voted to have some students move to in-person instruction by Jan. 25.
Speaker Wilson said many have praised him for his stance. But asked whether his move is "punitive," the Speaker said it is up to the Salt Lake City School Board what happens next.
"The school board does have the keys right now to make this decision. There’s no doubt in my mind," he told FOX 13. "We’ll see what happens and what kind of decision they make. I will say this — I’m happy to talk with school board members, the superintendent, if there are things the state can do to help the Salt Lake City School District get comfortable with opening up like every other school district in the state has, I’m happy to have these conversations."
Speaker Wilson has received a mixture of praise and condemnation from other political leaders for his stance. Fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill have defended the move. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall criticized it. The Salt Lake City School District said it was "shocked" but offered to work with the legislature on a path forward.
Governor Gary Herbert indicated he was not inclined to cut Salt Lake City educators out.
"I don’t know that they should, but that’s not my decision to make. That’s going to be coming up in the general session," he said, referring to the legislature. "I know the proposal Spencer Cox put forward included all the school districts."
The bonuses could be available by February once the full legislature votes on an education funding model in January, Speaker Wilson said. On Wednesday, the legislature appropriated a whopping $358 million in new money for public education in Utah, including more money directly for classes and teacher salaries. It was part of a promise lawmakers made to voters who approved a constitutional amendment changing the earmark on the income tax for education.