Not so long ago, PTA meetings consisted of punch, cookies and (usually) pleasant conversations with teachers about your child's progress in school. Lately, however, these gatherings have become highly politicized and often quite emotional.
The reason? Voters will be called upon Nov. 8 to decide the fate of three controversial tax-cutting initiatives. State PTA leaders, in cooperation with several other powerhouse organizations, are hoping to sway public opinion enough to defeat the initiatives.Their tactics have included sending papers home with children which describe in terrifying detail how school programs will be gutted by the proposed cuts in government spending and encouraging principals to give extra credit to children who attend meetings or whose parents attend meetings.
After all, according to State PTA President Darlene Gubler, helping to defeat the initiatives "may be the most important thing" her organization has ever done. So important, it seems, that she is willing to abandon long-held PTA standards of conduct. The group's own bylaws have even been sidestepped.
And the PTA is not the only group employing questionable strategies to fight the tax initiatives. A booklet entitled "Tax Initiative Information Packet" has been sent to all principals within given school districts by superintendents.
It contains instructions on preparing worst case scenarios of the impact of the initiatives on individual schools and detailing how many staff members will lose their jobs. Principals are advised to devote time at faculty meetings to the consequences of the initiatives.
Nowhere in the tract is the issue of fairness raised. Apparently, the people ultimately responsible for it have no compunctions about using children to gain the votes of parents, or of threatening teachers and staff members with loss of their jobs and/or a drastic altering for the worse of their working environments. Apparently the ends justify the means - at least in some minds.
Merrill Cook's staff recently undertook a statistical study of how much government employee time was being spent in meetings discussing - you guessed it - the possible negative effects of the initiatives. They analyzed some 40 school districts and 29 counties, and came up with a figure that exceeded $2.5 million worth of employee time.
This is happening in spite of the fact that, according to Salt Lake County Deputy Attorney Gavin Anderson, the "courts reason that public monies belong equally to both the proponents and opponents of an electoral issue, that advocacy of one side of the issue to the exclusion of the other violates the rights of those not represented."
Former Governor Scott Matheson, who heads the formal opposition to the initiatives in the form of Taxpayers for Utah, stated in a press conference last summer that he believes the more information citizens have about the initiatives, the more they will agree with his group and oppose them.
But to date, most information available to most people has told only one side of the story. In addition to the papers that are being sent home with children, the major media within the state have taken an obviously biased approach to the matter. And they have underscored their intentions by making sizeable contributions to Matheson's group.
In the face of this apparent all-out attack on the proposed initiatives, the question becomes, why? If it is really true that when people understand what is at stake they will oppose the initiatives, then why is there such a concerted effort by groups associated with Taxpayers for Utah to drown out the other side's message?
Consider for a moment the following:
(1) The Governor's Committee on Cost Effective Government recently found that $40-60 million could be saved annually through improved management in just four areas - the University of Utah, the State Health Department, the Granite School District, and data processing.
(2) Late last year, the Legislative Auditor General was unable to complete an audit of the State Board and State Office of Education because there was not enough data available on how much money was being spent on various programs, how much money was anticipated being spent in the future, what was expected from the programs, and whether or not the programs being funded were really the best way to handle the problem being addressed.
(3) Earlier this year, it was found that $3.5 million could not be accounted for by officials of Timp Mental Health Center. In light of that scandal, the legislative analyst performed a survey of 122 governmental entities designed to discover the degree of oversight to which each entity was subject. The results showed that seven were not receiving financial audits; 20 were not receiving compliance audits; 38 were not receiving performance audits. Moreover, of the 87 entities that issue contracts for services, 57 issue them without competitive bids.
"Bureaucracy protects itself, and that may or may not be in the best interests of the constituents," said State Senator Ivan M. Matheson, who is not seeking re-election this year and has not aligned himself with either side in the controversy. "I hope the people of Utah are smart enough to think this thing through and make a rational decision regardless of the information being pumped out on both sides of the issue - pro and con. Somewhere in the scheme of things we must learn to live within the framework of our ability to produce revenue."