The number of "ifs," "perhapses" and "maybes" that surround the tax initiatives that will be on this fall's ballots have public-education administrators guessing what effect they would have.
Educators are agreed only on the fact that their programs would be reduced from several different directions.The initiatives would chop at public-education budgets in at least three ways. Add to that the fact that if the measures passed, the Legislature might well deal with reduced overall income by setting new priorities for state needs, said Dr. James R. Moss, state superintendent for public instruction.
"Because we now get more than half the state's total income, we have the potential for suffering more than our share if the cutbacks are passed," Moss said.
Each of the three limitation proposals would effect education budgeting:
-Rollbacks to 1987 levels would leave districts with less money from sales, income and cigarette taxes. The bulk of education financing - approximately three-fourths - comes from income taxes, which create the pool from which the equalized basic program is drawn.
-A cap on property taxes would reduce school districts' ability to raise money for capital expenses and other programs. Roughly a quarter of education money comes from this source. Each district is required to levy 21.28 mills on property for education, and has options to use property taxes for several other special programs or enrichment.
-A state income tax credit for parents who choose to put their children in private schools would further reduce basic education program revenues, possibly by $3 million.
Moss estimates - given the uncertain nature of the situation - that public education would lose $134 million if all three measures pass. State leaders are looking at all the possible ways that amount could be absorbed, and urging local districts to make a thorough review of budgets in case cutting becomes necessary.
"We would have two ways to cut. Either the Legislature or the state board (of education) would dictate cuts from the top down or local districts would have to decide what to do with the reduced amount of money they would get," Moss said.
"We would have to look at all our programs, including vocational education, special education, counseling, kindergarten - maybe cut out 12th grade," he said.
Education managers would have to be careful not to cut into programs that receive federal support based on the state's willingness to contribute a share or the federal dollars would be lost as well.
The state's push for better utilization of technology in managing education and instructing students would be damaged, in all likelihood. Textbooks and library resources, which are "already in terrible condition" would see further cuts.
Career ladders, seen as one of the lynchpins of educational reform in the state, could fall prey to budget cuts, Moss said. And teachers who already are complaining of large classes could see even more students added to their rolls.
Though tax-cut proponents say revenue reductions would add only one to two students per classroom, the reality is that five to eight would be more likely along the Wasatch Front, he said. In rural Utah, class loads are not as great and there is no reason to think they would get greater, so the larger districts would bear the burden.
"Cuts would affect both the quantity and quality of our teachers," Moss predicted. "The quality has steadily declined already because teachers can get jobs for twice the salary and with better working conditions elsewhere."
Utah's education system produces students who perform well in comparisons with peers, Moss said. "We can continue to get good results if teachers are willing to stay. But they're ready to strike (because of poor working conditions and comparatively low salaries). The tax initiatives would add insult to their injury."
Moss has a disclaimer for the argument that a lot of fat can be trimmed from education administration. At the state level, "It's at its lowest in 25 years. In 1953-54, 7.8 percent of education's salary money went to administrators. In 1985-86, it was down to 5.1 percent." On the local level, even less of the budget is spent for administration. In the same years Moss mentioned, the percent fell from 1.7 percent to 1.1 percent at the district level.
The ratios of administration to other staff in education are lower than in the private business sector, he said.
"Those who want that `fat' trimmed are either ignorant or misguided." Besides, he added, "Our salaries are low in comparison to the private sector."
The state office has a budget of $142.9 million, Moss said, but only $12 million of that amount is used to run the office. All the remainder "flows through to other agencies." The state office staff has been reduced by 50 in the past few years, he added, and some workers have taken on an added load, creating a morale problem.