SALT LAKE CITY — In a stunning move, Salt Lake City School District teachers were cut out of a plan by the legislature to give all Utah teachers and school employees a bonus for working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Utah State Legislature's powerful Executive Appropriations Committee approved a $1,500 bonus for all public school teachers and $1,000 for employees. But House Speaker Brad Wilson made a motion that it is only for school districts that have in-person or a mix of in-person and online education.
"To receive funding for educator and school personnel stipends, a local education agency has provided in person, a combination on in-person and virtual or has been chartered to only provide virtual prior to January 19, 2021," he said.
That specifically leaves out the Salt Lake City School District, which has been online-only.
The move left Democrats on the committee, who represent Salt Lake City, stunned.
"I feel like this is focused on one particular school district because we are a hotspot," said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
Speaker Wilson, R-Kaysville, countered that if they wanted the money they could go to in-person instruction by Jan. 19 (the start of the legislative session). He defended his motion, arguing that children learn best from in-person instruction.
"The intent of this is to focus on what is in the best interest of the kids and the kids education. We’ve all seen with alarm how some of our students are falling behind and I would say this: Salt Lake can find ways like other school districts have done between now and Jan. 19 to safely do in-person instruction," he said.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, argued that it was a decision made by the school board, not the teachers.
"I hate to see those teachers demoralized because it really is a school board isn't it?" she said.
Speaker Wilson said the school board had time to move to in-person instruction. The committee approved his motion to carve out online-only school districts along party lines. It will now go before the full legislature when it meets next month.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, called the move "punitive," but also pointed out Salt Lake City School District has done in-person classroom instruction for special ed, suggesting it may be a loophole to continue to allow educators to get the money.
“It’s discouraging, to say the least,” said Salt Lake Education Association president James Tobler. “I think all teachers have really exhausted themselves and worked hard. It’s unfortunate to single Salt Lake teachers out that way like, ‘No, you guys have done less.’ I don’t believe that is true."
In other school districts, teachers were thrilled.
“We are trying our best, as well, and it’s kind that the legislators are understanding that we are and that we are being seen,” Canyons School District teacher Amber Rogers told FOX 1.
The Salt Lake City School Board said in a statement that it voted to keep online-only classes based on health data, and had voted recently to return some classes in-person starting Jan. 25.
"With news this week about the prioritization of vaccines for educators, our internal conversations at the district level have turned now to looking at ways to offer an in person learning option for our secondary students sooner than we expected," district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said in an email.
"As we look to in person learning options for all our students, it is crucial to recognize the work of our educators and school staff throughout the pandemic and throughout the remote learning period. Their efforts have been Herculean and are worthy of recognition. To hear anyone insinuate otherwise is shocking. We look forward to working with the legislature this session to continue to improve educational opportunities for our students and to recognize the work of all educators and school staff."
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall was not pleased with the committee's decision.
"This punitive provision should be removed immediately. SLC teachers are among the heroes of this pandemic - when faced with the impossible, they've done their best to serve our community, and they've done what's been asked of them by the school board. They've earned that stipend," she said in a statement to FOX 13.
Governor-elect Spencer Cox's office had no comment on the move. Earlier in the day, he praised the plan and pointed out his incoming administration had went to the legislature with a similar idea to award bonuses to educators as thanks for their hard work during the pandemic.
"This pandemic has put extraordinary strain on our entire education community, including school janitors, cafeteria workers, nurses, counselors, bus drivers, and especially our teachers. It’s taken courage, creativity, patience and perseverance to get through this year, and it’s not over yet," Cox said in a statement. "These frontline workers have earned our heightened respect, but they deserve tangible rewards as well. That’s why I’m so grateful to House and Senate leaders for joining us in providing these extra payments to school personnel. We honor and thank them for their remarkable efforts this year."
It came the same day the committee approved a massive $358 million increase in funding for schools, honoring a promise they made to voters if they approved a constitutional amendment shifting how education is funded. Voters approved Amendment G, which changed the earmark on income tax that was exclusively for education to now include social services.
Lawmakers then boosted per-pupil spending and funded enrollment growth.
"I think it shows that being able to pass Amendment G, putting in place a funding framework that supports public education in our state, which is a high priority to our constituents is extremely important and really sets public education on a firm foundation," said Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden.