S.L. County school districts cry foul over tax increases

New law means they have to give funds to Jordan School District

Published: Friday, Aug. 21 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Salt Lake County property owners will dole out $10.3 million in taxes to help pay for new schools in the Jordan School District in the next year under a new law. And for some parents who live in the Canyons, Granite, Salt Lake and Murray school districts, that seems unfair.

But according to lawmakers, that's the only way the state can help pay for the buildings the ever-growing Jordan School District needs.

The capital equalization law came out of the 2008 Legislative session and goes into effect this fiscal year.

Salt Lake, Granite and Murray districts had to implement a tax increase, meaning parents with schoolchildren are paying for education needs in another district. While the Canyons District didn't have to raise taxes, it did have to delay building renovations or upgrades scheduled for this school year to pay its equalization share.

"This is not a tax we requested, nor will it yield additional dollars to Salt Lake City School District. None of the estimated $5.7 million in increased revenues will benefit the school children of Salt Lake City," the Salt Lake District board said in a written statement. "Adding insult to injury, this required redistribution of property tax proceeds comes in a year when a dwindling economy has already forced deep cuts to the district budget."

Salt Lake District leaders, along with other opponents of the law, are working toward a repeal of the law during the 2009 session. "There is a lot of unrest," said Murray District superintendent Richard Tranter.

Amid massive outcry to this school funding "equalization plan," Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is proposing a bill he hopes will mollify opponents. He wants to instigate rules for how the receiving district would spend cash that comes from the other districts.

The five school districts in Salt Lake County are just learning of Stephenson's proposal. He presented it during Wednesday's Legislative Education Interim meeting.

The equalization plan was initially pitched as a statewide program – not just for Salt Lake County school districts. Representatives from several of the affected districts said they were unhappy with the plan. A spokesperson at the Canyons pointed out that buildings in the district are on average 39 years old and need millions of dollars' worth of repairs and renovations to meet seismic standards.

"At the same time, Canyons District is paying $3.8 million in building funds to Jordan School District this year under the state equalization law. This hampers Canyons' efforts to address its own building needs," a Canyons spokesperson said in a written response.

Stephenson's proposal outlines stipulations requiring the recipient districts to opt for year-round school before constructing new buildings to show they are utilizing existing buildings to full capacity.

Royce Van Tassell, director of the Utah Taxpayers Association, told the Deseret News he supports the proposed bill since it gives taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck. "Using facilities to their fullest extent possible is just a reasonable thing to do, before you go back to the taxpayers and say you need more," he said.

Stephenson said the bill would ensure donor districts are "getting the great value for their dollar" and the recipient district is "doing everything possible to utilize their buildings 100 percent" as they receive equalization money.

The receiving district must not hold onto the money for long, the bill proposal states.

Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, said the bill needs to make sure recipient districts appropriate those funds within a certain amount of time or return those funds. "Other districts are giving those monies away when they have great needs in their districts," she said.

The recipient district must have building plans in place so work can begin immediately with the funding, according to the proposed bill. The districts each have varying monetary requirements for the equalization and are handling the demand differently. Contributions are based on taxable value, size of district and number of students.

But Salt Lake district superintendent McKell Withers said regardless of regulations for a school district receiving equalization funds, "A Salt Lake County only equalization plan is bad at any level."

Granite District is paying out $725,067, which is $4.89 for a $250,000 home; Canyons District is doling out $3.8 million, which is $33.82 for a $250,000 home; Salt Lake District is contributing $5.7 million, which is $48.49 for a $250,000 home; and Murray District will pay $109,305, or $5.24 per $250,000 home.

e-mail: astewart@desnews.com

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