SANDY — Backers of the Our Schools Now citizen initiative have collected one-fourth of the signatures needed to place the issue on the November 2018 ballot, former House Speaker Nolan Karras told attendees of the Utah Education Association convention Thursday.
Karras, a member of the initiatives steering committee, thanked teachers for their help collecting signatures.
"I invite the remainder of you to saddle up. Let’s march down this road together," said Karras, a guest speaker at the convention's annual Hot Topics and Hotdogs lunch that raises funds for UEA's political action committee.
Our Schools Now seeks to ask voters for a one-time, 0.45 percent increase in sales and income tax rates in 2019, which would generate more than $700 million in annual public education funding.
To qualify for the statewide ballot, the organization must collect 113,000 signatures, the number of signatures equal to 10 percent of all votes cast for president in each state Senate district and 10 percent of all votes cast for president in the 2016.
The Our Schools Now effort is taking place "in a window of time when circumstances line up," Karras said.
"This is really a business-led issue. Those of us I think who can see the future a little bit are really worried about whether we're going to have the trained workforce we need to be able to provide economic benefit," he said.
Still, it's going to be a "tough battle," Karras said. "Don’t stand back and assume we can get it done."
Backers are anticipating resistance from Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group funded by David H. Koch and Charles Koch.
State lawmakers, who have established a steep threshold to place citizen initiatives on the statewide ballot, have openly criticized the initiative, arguing the state would be better served by policies that withstand the rigor of the legislative process.
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said there are a number initiatives across the country intended to enhance education funding.
Our Schools Now is particularly exciting because it has such strong backing from Utah's business community, she said.
When asked if NEA would support Utah's citizen initiative as it did the 2007 referendum that overturned the school voucher law passed by the Utah Legislature, Eskelsen Garcia said NEA's political action arm would likely lend its support.
NEA supported the voucher fight with about $3 million, she said, but she would not say if the Our Schools Now movement would receive a like amount of help.
She urged educators to stand up both as teachers and activists in their communities to take a role in school board races, legislative races and ballot initiatives.
While NEA has much work to do nationally in providing a defense against "the dark arts," she said, "the real action and real activism are going to be at the state and local level."
Eskelsen Garcia said her granddaughter Lily Jo, who is 2½ years old, will enter kindergarten in about 2½ years.
"I want her to get into kindergarten in Sandy that doesn't have 50 kids in it and that has a teacher that says, 'I made the right decision becoming a teacher. I'm going to stay here for my career and I feel respected. I feel empowered,'" she said.
Our Schools Now campaign manager Austin Cox said the citizen initiative has collected "just below 30,000 signatures" some seven weeks into the process.
"We still have volunteers out there with packets. Some of them have turned their packets in and they've taken more packets back out to their communities. So people can still sign these initiatives in their communities," he said.
Signatures are being collected at community events, in neighborhoods, "anything where there's a high density of people" but not schools.
"Some people have been willing to go door-to-door, so we're doing that as well," Cox said.