The Utah Legislature has wisely and prudently given the authority to local board of education to raise some property tax levies. A majority of members of the Davis Board of Education have voted to cautiously increase some taxes because of extremely difficult budgetary conditions. They have done so after appropriate public hearings.
Their decisions haven’t been easy, but I believe that these modest tax increases were justified and necessary for the future of our children, and many citizens would agree.
When I read the Clipper article, “School board candidates speak out on federal aid, property tax,” of October 4, it appeared that an explanation of the reduction in taxes which support education in Utah may be helpful.
The respected, non-partisan Utah Foundation has offered the best summary of education funding and the public’s interest. The Foundation reports that the effort to fund education in Utah has significantly decreased. In the mid-1990s and during previous decades, Utah placed within the top 10 states for K-12 education funding effort. Since the mid-1990s, rather than emphasizing funding for public education, state policymakers have placed a higher priority on growth in budgets for other programs or on reducing taxes.
A Utah Foundation 2012 Utah Priorities survey indicated that most voters feel spending should definitely increase for education.
So how did we get here – putting less taxpayer effort into funding education while student population growth is expanding? Legislators have reduced taxes that support education time and time again. A big change was in 2007 when Utah flatted state income tax rates resulting in a significant decrease in funding for education. The new income tax system may have been good, but the timing was horrendous. This was just prior to the economic collapse of 2008 when tax revenue for all programs plummeted.
This income tax reduction was in addition to a constitutional change that allows public education money to be shifted to higher education, and a significant decrease in property taxes for education when the primary residence deduction was increased to a generous 45%. We pay property taxes on only 55% of the value of our primary residences.
Without exception, each legislative session considers additional tax exemptions for specific industries with the accompanying rhetoric that this tax exemption will spur economic development. Many exemptions are passed including a web search portal sales tax exemption (I’m not kidding). It all adds up to fewer revenue sources for public education and to a lesser extent, other state programs.
Simultaneously, student enrollment has increased. Davis District is now educating 3,338 more students than it did four years ago. During the difficult recessionary years, the legislature did not fully fund this student growth. As a result, education budgets were dramatically reduced including fewer preparation days for teachers, therefore less salary for them. Our dedicated teachers have continued to teach the students during years of no salary increases and even reduced salaries.
While working for Davis District during the recession, I saw talented educators with important jobs in district administration transferred into the schools to fill vacancies created from attrition. A lean central administrative staff became skeletal. And class size increased. This is critical, particularly during the early formative years.
Bravo to school board incumbents and candidates who will be courageous and put the needs of our students as their top priority. Utah has the lowest funding per pupil in the nation – by a huge gap. That reality is stated with dismay, not pride.
Sheryl Allen is a former member of the Utah House of Representatives and the former Director of the Davis Education Foundation.