Sanpete response to Our-Schools-Now initiative is resounding “No!”
EPHRAIM—“Our Schools Now” came up against what might be called “Our Taxes Now” at a public meeting held last week to promote a statewide ballot initiative that aims to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for education.
A number of people made it clear they were not happy with the proposed ballot initiative after they heard from an Our School’s Now representative at Ephraim Elementary School on Tuesday, July 5.
“We continue to bleed the people who are earning a living with tax hikes,” Troy Shelley, former chairman of the Sanpete County Republican Party said. “Instead of going this approach, why don’t you go to the Legislature and tell them you want parameters put on education funding. They continue to take a little more out in taxes, and a little more. But instead of just increasing taxes, we need to control the money better when the funding is there.”
Shelley and about two dozen others listened while Rich Kendell, co-chairman of the initiative and a former state commissioner of higher education, explained his group’s plan at the meeting, which would help make up for millions of “lost” education funding due to tax breaks and tax freezes.
A group of more than 50 business and community and education leaders are spearheading Our Schools Now, including initiative co-chair Gail Miller, wife of the late Larry Miller and owner of the Utah Jazz; Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank; and Ron Jibson, retired chairman and CEO of Questar.
Kendell told last week’s audience that Our Schools Now had commissioned a study which found out that Utah education was missing out on $1.2 billion a year due to certain tax-break provisions.
He argued that was why Utah is last in the nation in per-pupil spending.
“We are not last in the nation by accident,” he said. “We are last in the nation by policy.”
Kendell said the initiative would generate $700 million each year, or nearly $1,000 per student. He said the money could go a long way to helping state education recoup more than a billion dollars lost each year—money that has instead gone to things like roads.
The initiative calls for raises in both the state’s sales tax and income tax, to be phased in over three years.
Sales tax would increase from 4.7 percent to 5.2 percent, which would generate an additional $250 million yearly.
Another $450 million could come from raising the state income-tax rate by half-a-percent, from 5 percent to 5.5 percent.
The cost to the average family, he said, would be $35 per month, or about $416 per year.
“While nobody likes taxes, the value of education makes a worthwhile investment,” Kendell said.
Eighty-five percent of the money would go to elementary and secondary schools, leaving the remaining 15 percent for higher education.
With the initiative designed to be distributed based on enrollment, Ephraim Elementary School, for example, would receive about $500,000; Snow College would receive just over $2.7 million.
“This money would be going straight to your schools–and your students,” Kendell said, because it would bypass state and and district administration, and would instead flow directly to individual schools, allowing each school to decide how best to use it.
Under the initiative’s rules, each school principal would work with teachers, parents, administrators and students be required to create a “Teach and Student Success Plan,” which would budget out how the money would be spent. These plans would have to be approved by district school boards, and made publicly available online
Schools would be required to prove the plan’s success through improved test scores. If scores didn’t improve, Kendell said, the school could assign someone else to redraft the plan.
Funds could be used for teacher salaries (up to 25 percent), early-childhood learning, technology, professional development, class-size reduction, additional teachers, counselors, tutors and specialists—or anything else that could contribute to student performance. None of it could go toward state or district administrative expenses, or for construction.
Kendell spoke passionately about the initiative, but when it came time for pubic comment, many people, like former Republican chair Shelley, voiced opinions ranging from unenthusiastic to outright opposition.
Ted Meikle, of Ephraim, said he was concerned that the ballot drive, which would in effect take the Utah Legislature out of the equation, would be bad precedent.
“It’s hard to say you’re not for funding education–it’s like saying you’re not for mothers or something,” Meikle said. “But…by doing this, you’re trying to overstep that check-and-balance process. The Legislature has to make these hard decisions because if they don’t, you get people who go out and bypass the process and raise our taxes. That’s how we get bad public policy.”
He raised an oft-heard counterargument used against Utah education-funding advocates, namely, that more money won’t necessarily mean better student outcomes. “Utah may be the last in per pupil funding, but we are not the last in student scores.”
South Sanpete School District (SSSD) Superintendent Kent Larsen, unable to “sit back and not make a comment,” disagreed.
“In my position, I can’t possibly say more money won’t make a difference in education here,” Larsen said.
His issue, though, was with the plan’s allotted percentage for teacher salaries, especially when teacher retention is in some cases a “very real problem.”
“We can see the purpose. We can see things we could do with that money, but with only 25 percent of that money available for teacher salary increase, that’s not that much.”
Larsen, who worked for years in the district at three of its schools prior to becoming superintendent, went to bat for his teachers. “The thing I want to assure you is that there is a huge effort by the teachers in our districts to do the very best job they can.”
Several more people said they were not behind the initiative, if for no other reason than they don’t want their taxes raised again.
But Linda Mount, who has a Ph.D. in instructional psychology from BYU, had an issue with the way students are being taught, and that no more money should be spent as long as schools suffered from “ineffective education paradigms and methodology.”
And by that, she meant the state’s Common Core standards, which she said should be eradicated.
“How much faster do we have to pour money down a rat hole,” she said.
Nikki Ellett, another South Sanpete educator, said, “I know the idea of raising taxes sounds unpleasant, but I think this initiative could really make a difference for our students.”
Ellet said she believed the hiring of more counselors to help deal with special needs and learning problems would be a big boon to districts. Money from the initiative could go a long way to help accomplish that.
She said it’s either Our Schools Now, or suffer the consequences later.
“I know you’re upset about this, she said. “But you can invest in your kids now, or you can deal with it down the road, and it won’t be pretty.”
The ballot-initiative petition needs 113,143 signatures by April 15 of next year in order to get on the November 2018 election ballot. Signatures must come from registered voters, and must comprise at least 10 percent of the registered voters in 26 of the state’s 29 senate districts.