Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
“One fine mornin’, I'm gonna reach up and grab me a handfulla stars ” — Samuel Allen, poet.
The Jordan School District, in retrospect, would have been better off just trying to grab one or two stars.
Voters Tuesday couldn’t have been clearer if they had stormed schools with pitchforks. They liked the proposed $495 million bond issue about as much as Utahns liked Michael Jordan’s last-second shots in the NBA finals of ’97 and ’98.
They defeated it, 67-33 percent. Even Democrats do better in some parts of this state.
One state over, residents of Colorado defeated Amendment 66 by a similar margin, despite a campaign of more than $10 million by school advocates. That one would have taken $1 billion more per year out of the economy for a variety of school needs.
But as educators try to understand what just happened, they should be cautioned. A “no” vote Tuesday did not mean people don’t care about the education of their children. Nor does it mean they will be satisfied with substandard attempts to teach them.
Two lessons, however, do come into focus, and they ought to grab the attention not only of school administrators statewide, but of anyone who makes a living from the public sector.
The first is that a cause, no matter how noble, does not exist in a vacuum. Voters in the Jordan District had to weigh the proposal against every other group or entity trying to lay claim to their wallets. Property tax bills list all the local governments that levy against home values. Add to these state and federal income taxes, utility franchise taxes and private-market pressures that have reduced the annual incomes of many. Children must not only be educated; they must be clothed, fed and sheltered, as well.
For many, the Jordan District bond proposal would have taken another $300 or so per year from the family budget. It was simply too much.
The second lesson is that gauging public opinion on tax matters is a serious business that all too often gets a less than serious analysis.
In a recent meeting with the Deseret News editorial board, Jordan officials said they sent surveys to residents asking how they felt about a variety of alternatives for dealing with growth. Of a list including year-round schedules, more busing and boundary changes, most of those who returned the survey chose a tax increase to construct new schools.
But only 11 percent bothered to return the survey. As I pointed out to our guests, this hardly qualified as a scientific profile, let alone the miscalculated basis for a large bond proposal.
But then, even scientific profiles can be problematic. Polls often show Utahns in favor of tax hikes for education. Earlier this year, one commissioned by Exoro and the University of Utah’s Center for Public Policy and Administration found that 55 percent support raising income taxes for education.
But whether it’s an income tax hike for the nuts and bolts of teaching or a property tax hike for new construction, voters tend to focus more on the details before they cast their ballots, and that demands more nuance than simply answering a question from a pollster.
The Jordan District deserves a strong dose of sympathy. Seven years ago, the Legislature dabbled with the idea of allowing just about any city, or group of cities, to form their own school districts as a way to improve education. The Jordan District became the guinea pig and, as it turned out, the only victim of this idea.
When east side communities split from a much-larger Jordan District to form the Canyons District, Jordan was left with the old district’s fastest growing end, but with a fraction of the tax base.
The way public education currently operates, Jordan is in desperate need of more schools. The bond would have built 11 of them.
I suspect voters would have approved a smaller bond. By reaching for the stars, however, the district ended up with nothing.
Only real and radical statewide education reform would give it the tools necessary to deal with its growth. But it might be easier to try grabbing stars from the sky.
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