The Salt Lake Board of Education will face a tough battle if it asks taxpayers for more money to fix the city's schools for earthquake safety.
"It is a long shot to get voters to raise taxes," David B. Magleby, a Brigham Young University political science professor, told the board in a special meeting Tuesday.Magleby, who is known nationally as an expert on referendums and initiatives, said he would discourage a referendum, which voters likely would oppose, if the board members feel comfortable about raising taxes on their own.
Legally, the board can raise taxes without a public vote. The required one-mill property tax increase needed for the $100 million seismic project would raise taxes $60 on a $100,000 home annually for 20 years. The money would be used to retrofit or rebuild the city's 35 schools.
Last month, the seven-member board, which has three new members, ratified a decision by the old school board that taxpayers should be asked in a referendum election if they want to spend the estimated $100 million on the seismic project.
During Tuesday's discussion, however, it appeared that board members haven't ruled out the possibility of raising taxes on their own without holding a referendum. Superintendent John W. Bennion later told the Deseret News that the board isn't bound to a referendum. The board can rescind its earlier vote, he said.
Magleby said a referendum doesn't happen spontaneously but would require exhaustive effort by a group of citizens, besides the school board members, who favor the proposal.
Utahns don't have the same experience with earthquakes as Californians, so the citizen committee would need to present the compelling reasons why taxpayers should spend $100 million on seismic safety, he said.
When in doubt, taxpayers vote "no," so they must be well educated on the issues, he said.
The proponents will face formidable opposition, most likely from senior citizens or those on fixed incomes with children no longer in school, he said.
He told the board that it must be prepared to combat numerous negative political questions.
Among them are:
Have you done everything in your power to correct the unsafe schools or to get the schoolchildren out of unsafe schools into newer buildings on a year-round schedule?
Why was South High closed when East High has a safety problem?
This isn't just a problem for Salt Lake City but for all school districts along the Wasatch Front, so why should one district take it upon itself to pay such a huge bill without state aid?
Considering cost overruns on other projects, are you certain that it won't cost be more than $100 million?
Architect Randy Green, who has promoted several bond elections, echoed Magleby's comments about a strong citizen group leading the fight. "It has to be run by the community, not school administrators," he said.
Pollster Dan Jones, whom the board may hire to conduct a citywide poll as the board can assess its support for seismic safety, suggested an October primary as the best election time.
With a random poll of 600 city residents, the board will have a good baseline of public opinion, Jones said. A poll must show 60 percent or more support for the tax hike for seismic safety before the board can confidently raise taxes without a public vote, he said.
He said an information campaign can change people's opinions. "People will fight more for education and the safety of their kids than any other issues," Jones said.