- Associated Press - Sunday, November 22, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah needs to find more than $90 million in state coffers to pay for a predicted an influx of new students into the state’s public schools.

There was an unexpected enrollment increase this year and nearly 10,000 additional children are predicted next school year, reported The Deseret News (https://bit.ly/1OSNzSa).

Schools are already dealing with nearly 3,400 more students than the 2015 Legislature funded. That alone will cost schools up to an extra $17 million, Legislative staff told members of the Executive Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

The current year budget anticipated about 8,000 more students but 11,713 showed up, according to Ben Leishman, a legislative fiscal analyst for public education. He told the committee that the difference was factored into the new predictions.

Leishman’s report said it’s not clear yet what the impact of this year’s shortfall will be on the budget, but Utah State Office of Education Associate Superintendent Scott Jones said in an interview that it could be covered by surplus funds.

Next year’s enrollment is projected to reach nearly 644,000 students.

“Growth is slowing from what we can tell, but we’re still growing,” said Leishman.

Most of the growth is happening at charter schools, according to Leishman. He said that means next year’s price tag will be more than $97 million if the state uses the traditional way of calculating funding for students at charter schools.

Funding next year’s growth is the state Board of Education’s top priority, according to the board’s vice chairman, Dave Thomas. Before discovering this year’s under-estimate, the board thought enrollment growth would add up to $77 million.

Thomas said he thinks the state will always fund for enrollment growth, but worries about what will happen to other board priorities.

“The question is: What’s left?” he said.

The board is expected to approve other budget priorities next month, said Thomas, includinga $100 million technology initiative and $50 million in ongoing funding.

Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, a Logan Republican, said in the Tuesday meeting that lawmakers need to have more discussion about how enrollment growth is funded.

“I fully intend to fund it,” he said in an interview, adding that public education needs are adding up quickly. “But we have to find a different way of looking at it.”

Last month, lawmakers discovered that there is a $109 million surplus from the budget year than ended June 30 thanks to larger-than-expected state income tax revenues earmarked for education.

Lawmakers are expected to have revenue estimates for the upcoming budget year next month.

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Information from: Deseret News, https://www.deseretnews.com

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