The outgoing Salt Lake Board of Education wants to know if voters are willing to pay higher property taxes to make the city's 35 schools safer in earthquakes.

The seven-member board voted unanimously this week to hold a referendum election by May 2 to let voters decide if they're willing to pay more than $100 million to finance the district's seismic retrofitting.The board's decision backs up the staff recommendation to hold a referendum election.

Contained in the proposal is the decision to fix the high schools and intermediate schools first, to keep the city's high schools at three and to retain the ninth grade with the high schools.

Board President Stephen Boyden said the board's research, conducted throughout the summer, showed that high schools with much larger populations than those in the city had more social and academic problems.

The principals of East, West and Highland also favored retaining the status quo, he said.

Three veteran members of the school board - Lorna Matheson, Ronald Walker and Susan Keene - attended their final board meeting Tuesday night. When the newly configured board is sworn in Jan. 8, it won't be bound by the current board's decision.

But it appears unlikely that the new board will back away from the current board's decision. Since November's election, the new board members have sat next to those they will replace at all meetings, participating in discussions. None voiced objections to Tuesday's decision.

The outgoing Salt Lake Board of Education agrees to the following seismic plan. It includes:

- A referendum election in the spring to approve a raise in property taxes to rebuild or retrofit the district's 35 schools. The board would need to hike the tax rate by .001, or 5 mills, for 19 to 25 years. A property owner of a $100,000 home would see an additional $60 per year added to his tax bill for the next two decades.

The plan approved by the board uses the tax rate to finance retrofitting on a pay-as-you-go basis, saving the school district the expense of bonding.

The staff report said it would cost the district $60 million to $70 million in interest payments if bonds were used to finance the seismic retrofitting.

- Implementation of retrofitting in two phases. The high schools, intermediate schools and two worst elementary schools would be retrofitted or replaced first. That cost would be $67.8 million. Deficiencies in the remaining elementary schools would be corrected in the second half of the 19- to 25-year project. The cost would be $39 million.

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Seismic safety proposal

The outgoing Salt Lake Board of Education liked the following seismic plan:

- Work would begin at the 78-year-old East High School, with a new classroom wing being built on the east side of 1300 East. Workmen will trench along the proposed site to look for faults during the Christmas break.

- Highland would be combined with East, after the new classroom wing is built, so that Highland can be retrofitted.

- West would be combined with East while West is retrofitted.

- Clayton and Hillside intermediate schools would be combined at Hillside while Clayton is fixed. The reverse would be true when Hillside is retrofitted. The same plan would be used for Northwest and Glendale. Bryant would be retrofitted in segments using months when school isn't in session.

- Elementary schools would be combined during retrofitting, probably using double sessions. Student housing would be determined after more specific construction plans are drawn up.