SALT LAKE CITY — Cities would be blocked from creating a new high-revenue school district under the terms of a bill approved Thursday by the Utah House.
HB84, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, would stop the creation of a new school district by city leaders if the difference between the estimated revenues of the two districts over five years is greater than 5 percent.
Hall said the intent of the bill is to avoid a situation where affluent neighborhoods and revenue-generating areas are "cherry-picked" in the creation of new school district, leaving the former district cash-strapped and overcrowded.
"This bill is all about making sure that in the creation of a new school district, we don’t end up with a situation where one geographical area has 70 percent of the tax base with 30 percent of the kids," he said.
The bill is seen by many as a response to the Jordan School District, which over the past several years has seen the splintering of its east side for the creation of the Canyons School District, rapid enrollment growth and overcrowding, and the recent failure of a nearly $500 million bond for new buildings.
Some members of the South Jordan City Council have expressed an interest in leaving the Jordan School District and creating a new district. A special meeting of the City Council was held earlier this week, with city leaders meeting with mayors of the municipalities that make up Canyons School District.
HB84 would make it more difficult for South Jordan city officials to initiate a split from the Jordan School District, but Hall emphasized that other options — including a citizen initiative or action by the Jordan Board of Education — would still be available if a split is needed.
"It absolutely does not prohibit school districts from splitting," Hall said. "There are other ways."
But Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, cautioned against taking action that would limit the ability of local decision-making. He attempted to run an amendment that would have exempted most Utah municipalities, but it was voted down.
"What’s going to stop us from coming back next year and the next year from taking away (option) two and (option) three?" Cunningham said, referring to the different ways school districts are created.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, also suggested an amendment that would have widened the revenue window to 10 percent. He said that five-year revenue estimates are not precise, particularly when dealing with large sums, and a 10 percent revenue window would allow flexibility.
"If they’re bound by a small 5 percent window, I think that causes a lot of frustration when a group feels like they’re doing something for strong reasons," Eliason said.
Hall spoke against both amendments. He said future action by lawmakers would be based on whether a proposal is good or bad policy, and the 5 percent window is consistent with existing statute regarding the incorporation or annexation of cities and towns.
The bill was approved in a 56-14 vote. It will now go before the Senate for consideration.
HB84 has also received the formal support of the Salt Lake County Council.
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