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Lawmakers approve a bonus for teachers, but may exclude Salt Lake City School District

(Utah State Capitol Complex. Credit: Paul Nelson, file)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The state legislature is one step closer to approving a big bonus for teachers, but the Salt Lake City School District may be left out. Lawmakers say that’s because the district isn’t offering in-person learning. 

The bonuses come from the $121 million “COVID-19 Educator Assistance Stipend,” and it would give teachers an additional $1,500 as a thank you for their hard work during the disruptive pandemic. Lawmakers gave bipartisan praise to the stipend during the first part of their discussion, saying it would keep many frustrated teachers from leaving the profession. Others say the bonuses were less than teachers deserved, but they feel it was a step in the right direction.

Governor-Elect Spencer Cox said the heroic work school workers have done during the pandemic deserves not only respect but tangible rewards too. Cox said he and Lt. Governor-Elect Diedre Henderson have been working on this budget proposal to include the bonuses.
Cox noted legislative leadership had already been working on a similar idea. He said he’s grateful to Utah’s House and Senate for the extra payments and thanked school personnel for all they’ve done during a difficult time.

However, Speaker Brad Wilson then added a motion that surprised many Democratic lawmakers.  His motion added language that would send the money only to certain schools.

“All of our educators have worked hard, but this motion on the intent language basically says we’re going to funnel this money to those [schools] that have had their students in a classroom,” he said.

Currently, the Salt Lake City School District has provided online learning, exclusively, and district officials say they intended to start 2021 with online classes until the spread of COVID-19 had diminished to the point where students could return to the classroom, safely.  However, Wilson believes students are suffering and grades are falling when kids can’t return to school.

“I think all of us saw the news article about the Salt Lake School District a few days ago, and how far behind those students are falling relative to their peers,” Wilson said.

Wilson says his goal isn’t to prevent teachers and other school employees from getting the bonuses.  He says he would love to give the district that money as long as they offer in-person learning by January 19th.  He says his motion was his way to balance the needs of the students with those of faculty and staff.

This motion did not sit well with lawmakers like Representative Angela Romero.  She says there are special needs students being taught in-person, and this motion focuses solely on one particular school district.

“Our school district would, from my perspective, be targeted because they’re complying with health guidelines,” Romero said.

Representative Carol Spackman Moss the motion would punish the wrong group of people, and that it’s not the teachers’ fault the district only offered online classes.

She said, “The teachers didn’t make the decision.  I feel like they’d be punished for something the school board decided to do.”

This motion came as a complete surprise to officials with the Salt Lake City School District.

Spokesperson Yándary Chatwin tells KSL, “That is the absolute last thing that I want educators in the Salt Lake City School District to think that the work that they have undertaken during the pandemic is not valued and not worthy of recognition because that is certainly not the case.”

Chatwin says the school board has always intended to bring children back to the classroom as soon as possible.  However, she says there are specific health guidelines they’re following to ensure everyone is safe when the doors open again.  The recent news that teachers would be vaccinated ahead of the general public already had board members looking into whether or not they could bring students back sooner than expected.

“When [the board] saw that COVID-19 data in our county indicated a lower risk for elementary students, they voted to offer that option starting next month,” she said.

The board will meet again January 5th.  Chatwin says they expect to talk about the vaccination rollout and the possible loss of bonuses then.