Utah School Board Considers Rejecting Federal Money to Avoid Transgender Rules

Published August 19, 2016

Three elected board members of one of Utah’s largest school districts say they would rather risk losing $40 million of federal taxpayer money than be forced to comply with the Obama administration’s latest directive on transgender students.

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division sent a letter to public schools in May mandating, in part, “When a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”

In an open letter sent in May to the Utah State Legislature, governor, and state school board, Alpine School District Board of Education members Wendy Hart, Paula Hill, and Brian Halladay wrote, “This guidance would allow a boy that identifies as a girl to be allowed to use facilities such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers with girls. This is not just a complete violation of privacy, but is morally reprehensible. The consequences of this social experiment would be disastrous, not only as an invasion of the rights of a majority, but also with the potential legal liability this could incur upon school districts and the state, if we were to adopt this egregious guidance.”

The letter’s authors also said, “This level of federal overreach is as unprecedented as it is unconstitutional. As locally-elected board members, we will be voting for a budget next month that includes no federal funding at all.”

The district’s $40 million in federal taxpayer funding accounts for a little more than 6 percent of the district’s $600 million total budget.

During the June meeting of the board, Hart made a motion for Alpine members to create a backup budget free from federal assistance by September. Hart’s motion failed in a 3–4 vote, but The Salt Lake Tribune reported, “[T]he committee said it would continue to informally discuss how the district could fare without the 6.3 percent slice of its total revenue for the 2016–17 school year.”

Says Funds Cost Freedom

Hart says accepting taxpayer funds costs the district their freedom in managing schools. Hart says Federal Maintenance of Effort (MOE) rules, or regulations governing the use of federal grants, are a prime example of how federal funds hamper spending flexibility.  

“This is the discussion I think we need to have,” Hart said. “How much does compliance cost us? MOEs prevent us from reducing what we are spending, for example, on special education, in order to qualify for the federal funds. I believe if you removed the MOE, we would be serving our students better than we are currently able to under the federal constraint.”

Hart says by redirecting state lunch subsidies from students who don’t really need them and asking charitable and religious organizations in the county to help fill in funding gaps, Alpine could better serve poorer students with a smaller budget.

Beholden to the Feds

Oak Norton, founder of Utahns Against Common Core, says the Alpine School District already had a policy in place to accommodate transgender students, but DOE’s regulations force the district to change that policy.

“This issue has never been a big community issue here until the feds got involved,” Norton said. “Taking a dime of money from government entities makes you beholden to them. The states have to find ways to get rid of federal money.

“It would be easy enough to get out from under federal funding,” Norton said. “Utah gets anywhere from 8 to 12 percent of our annual education budget from the federal government. That money came from us to begin with, and it’s just being returned with strings attached that require us to do certain things.”

Needy Mentality

Hart says generally people are not open to the idea of refusing to accept federal funds.

“In education, we repeatedly see that we are constrained by finances, in our district especially, as we are the lowest-funded district in the lowest-funded state,” Hart said. “Without looking into compliance costs that are much harder to quantify, we just automatically equate looking at alternatives to federal funding as a demand to give up scarce resources.”

Calls for Local Voters’ Attention

Norton says many parents are ending their involvement in public schools because they have lost their control to the federal government.

Norton says local citizens hold the key to returning education to the local level and reclaiming their voice.

“Local citizens need to better understand that as long as the federal government is involved in education, they will dictate the policies,” Norton said. “For true local control, we need local funding to accompany local leadership.”

Hart says it’s up to the people to vote for change.

“Should the makeup of the board change, with three seats up for election this November, then ongoing discussions might become a reality next year,” Hart said. “It will depend on the voters and what they want to see from those who represent them on the board.”

Jenni White ([email protected]writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.