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UEA seeks funding boost, no new mandates from lawmakers on teachers

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SALT LAKE CITY — The state's largest teachers union has released a sort of "list of demands" ahead of the upcoming legislative session, seeking better funding for educators and a moratorium on mandates.

"What do we want? We would like an 8% increase on the WPU that’s in addition to inflation," said Renée Pinkney, the president of the Utah Education Association. "That’s about a 12% increase on the WPU."

The WPU is the weighted pupil unit, a funding formula tied to class sizes that can also be added to a teacher's salary. Pinkney said other education groups were supportive of the ask of the Utah State Legislature.

In addition to a boost there, the UEA would like to see an increase in paid professional hours for all licensed educators, more money for recruitment and retention of teachers (including helping student teachers financially) and an increase in funding for safe schools and more counselors.

The UEA said it would support a bill to help students in need get free lunches. That legislation came about after FOX 13 News reporting on student lunch debt.

The union also announced it wants lawmakers to institute a moratorium on funding for the controversial school choice voucher program (which it has historically opposed) and it wants lawmakers to halt any new requirements being heaped on teachers.

"We have different mandates or initiatives that then just add to the plate in terms of what teachers are expected to be doing and it just keeps growing and growing and growing," Pinkney told FOX 13 News.

As the largest teachers union with ties to parents and public education supporters, the UEA has the ability to make things a little uncomfortable for lawmakers on Utah's Capitol Hill. Currently, the union is a part of negotiations over a proposed constitutional amendment legislative leaders would like to see passed in 2024.

Under Utah law, the income tax is earmarked for public education and some social services. The legislature has passed a proposed amendment that would allow the state to dip into that for other needs, so long as they ensure education is funded. The UEA has not jumped on board in support of it and could make its passage with voters difficult, should the union choose to actively oppose it.

"At this point, we are in a no position stance," Pinkney said. "In terms of what we really, really need is to elevate the teaching profession. We know that we have an educator shortage that is still in place."

Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, who often negotiates education budget funding items for the Republican majority in the legislature, said she wants educators to know they are recognized and appreciated.

"High-quality education is crucial to Utah’s ongoing success. In the past 10 years, the legislature has added $2.5 billion to public education, including $64 million to increase educator preparation and collaboration time last year," she said in a statement to FOX 13 News.

"The Legislature will continue to increase education funding and programs that assist educators in the challenging job that they do and work to better attract and maintain qualified educators in the field. During the upcoming session, I and my colleagues will review proposed legislation and funding proposals from legislators, stakeholders, engaged constituents and community leaders as we work to balance the state’s budget."

Pinkney said she understands the legislature must balance a lot of needs.

"I am a hopeful optimist that our legislature will continue to invest in our public schools and they will recognize the needs," she said. "However, as a social studies teacher, I know there are oftentimes scarce resources. There are buckets and there are tough decisions that have to be made."