Superintendent Clark Puffer says Cache County School District was betrayed when it trusted legislators to find a way to replace its overcrowded, deteriorating, turn-of-the-century schools.
Instead, a proposal aimed at helping Cache and other tax-poor districts to build needed schools died Feb. 27, its multimillion-dollar recommendations still in committee when lawmakers adjourned."(The House education subcommittee) spent 15 minutes discussing a $100,000 study they asked for while the general Legislature spent five hours on whether a dog should be in the front or back of a truck," Puffer laments.
Though endorsed by all 40 school districts, the plan was not resurrected during this past week's special session. But angry Cache school officials swear they'll get legislators' attention yet - even if it's in court.
"We have talked about that as the last alternative if we . . . become convinced the Legislature will not deal with the issue," Puffer said. "Late this fall, if there's no legislative action, then we would contact other districts about filing a lawsuit."
Cache would argue that the state's failure to equalize school building funds denies its 12,500 students the quality education available in richer districts.
Specifically, the Utah School Finance Task Force proposal insured districts a state average of about $30 per mill per student for capital outlay. For Cache, which realized only $11 last school year despite an overall school levy of 46.4 mills (state average is 42.6), it would mean $1.2 million more a year for buildings.
The proposal also would have restored the state's Critical School Building Fund, which legislators have slashed from about $18 million a decade ago to just $6.5 million now.
Cache, forced to replace two 1920s middle schools at a cost of $3.5 million after the state fire marshal declared them fire hazards, was counting on the plan being adopted.
"We have taxed our people to the limit," said school board chairwoman Carol Funk, noting that the county's predominant dairy industry has been in a slump for years. "We don't have five cents to do any building now.
"Even if we were to put another seven mills on, making us the highest in the state (for local school levies), we would get only half a million dollars more a year," Funk said.
The measure would have depended on new appropriations. In other words, districts already raising more than the average would not lose their building funds.
That provision was critical in gaining support from wealthier districts, Park City School Superintendent Nancy Moore acknowledged. The resort community led the state last year with $119 per mill in capital outlay for each of its 1,800 students.
Because Utah fully equalizes school maintenance and operation funds, last year Park City returned nearly $800,000 to the state kitty. But redistributing building levy funds in a similar way gets a resounding "no" from Moore.
"It would be a financial disaster for our district," she said, adding that a 14.5 percent enrollment increase last year makes Park City the fastest growing district in the state.
The task force's capital equalization package remains the best option, Moore insists.
Those proposals have strong support from Granite School District, the state's largest at 77,000 students and growing by 2 percent a year. Because Granite's capital mill levy is only $18 per student, the $30 guarantee alone would generate about $3 million more a year for buildings.
"We see some real bulges coming," Superintendent Loren Burton said. "We have an immediate need for more classrooms."
Washington County Superintendent Steven Peterson echoes those concerns. With enrollment doubled to 13,500 over the past decade, the district is "bumping the limit" of its schools despite erecting five new buildings since 1986.
Washington could expect about $400,000 more for construction from equalization.
Bill Boren, who oversees the state's public school building program, acknowledges the system is failing. But legislators would need to do more than adopt the task force's recommendations to solve construction funding woes.
Along with restoring the critical building fund, lawmakers need to undo a 4-year-old law that included retirement of districts' residual bonding debt within the applicable School Building Aid Program.
"The law throws the program out of whack. The money is not going to the districts with the greatest need; it's going to districts with a lot of residual debt," Boren complained.
For example, during the 1989-90 school year, more than $2.7 million of the building fund's $6.5 million went to residual debt.
Cache officials have no complaints about Boren's administration of the fund, which is strictly determined by a complicated formula based on factors ranging from assessed valuation, bonding capacity and enrollment to project growth and debt.
Last year, the state gave Cache nearly $1.4 million in critical building money, second only to Washington, which received $2 million.
"They're not ignoring us, they've been very good to us," Funk said. "But we're still dealing with old buildings."
Without equalization, the district's need for new schools will continue to outstrip its meager tax base. From such desperation come lawsuits.
Both Funk and Puffer said they hoped to meet before fall with Gov. Norm Bangerter and legislative leaders to discuss the crisis.
"The board's not made a decision yet," Funk said. "(But) we have discussed a lawsuit. Our children are being discriminated against."