Most people are not especially keen on imposing more taxes on themselves, even for a good cause like education. This was illustrated again this week when voters in six school districts rejected proposals to levy an additional 2-mill leeway property tax to reduce class sizes.
Voting down the proposal were Duchesne, Nebo, Sevier, Tooele, Uintah and Weber districts. Voters defeated the leeway in Sevier even though school officials guaranteed improvements in student performance.Two districts, Murray and Grand, did approve the levy, while a third, Granite, remained in doubt because of the closeness of the vote. The counting of absentee ballots could change the narrow Granite approval.
The loss in two-thirds of the districts is a disappointment, since Utah suffers from the largest class sizes in the nation and 2 mills - translating into just a few dollars per household - would not have been a burden to most people.
The 1990 Legislature authorized school boards to impose the 2-mill leeway without a vote, but the districts decided to make it an election issue because they believed the higher tax would be challenged otherwise.
Yet the Legislature evaded its responsibility by dumping the problem into the laps of school districts in the final moments of the session last February. Faced with demands from schoolteachers, the lawmakers tried to make it look as if they had done something about crowded classrooms. But, in effect, they simply tossed the hot potato at school officials.
Knowing the problems attached to the leeway, 31 of Utah's 40 school districts did not even try to make use of the authorization. School boards in Grand and Tooele counties did authorize the tax without a vote, but later decided to put the issue on the ballot. Grand was upheld, Tooele was not. Out of the nine that did try, two out of three failed at the ballot box.
Clearly, if the problem of overcrowded classrooms is to be solved, the answer does not lie in trying to get voters to raise their own property taxes. Lamentably, this appears to be true even though smaller classes obviously would allow teachers to give more individual attention to students. There would be more learning and fewer failures.
Because overcrowded classes are a critical state education problem, the Legislature needs to tackle the issue head-on instead of "authorizing" something that offers more illusion than reality.