SALT LAKE CITY — Noting that children's ZIP codes should not devalue their education, a Utah lawmaker will once again sponsor legislation he says will help equalize school funding across the state.
With a few exceptions, the state’s school district boundaries were drawn by the Utah Legislature in 1916, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, told members of the Utah Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.
"Those boundaries, over 100 years of time, have created a set of geographic and demographic advantages and disadvantages based on the random drawing of geographic features and where people are choosing to live. That was unpredictable 100 years ago, but here we are, and we’re faced with the consequences of that,” Fillmore said.
Most young families — 70 percent to 75 percent of the state’s school-age population — elect to live in areas where property values are lower and homes are more affordable, he said. This demographic is largely concentrated in the Davis, Jordan, Alpine and Nebo school districts. Consequently, they are some of the fastest-growing school districts in the state.
“What we have is this vicious cycle where the low property value (areas) that generate the least amount of tax revenue are ones that are attracting the students that need to be educated," Fillmore said.
"The children who live in those school districts, the funding for their education is just falling further and further behind because of those geographic and demographic disadvantages that the Legislature created by accident 100 years ago and we need to fix, which is what I’m proposing we make efforts to do."
Conversely, school districts such as the Salt Lake City School District have a shrinking enrollment but a significant amount of commercial property, some second homes and a high property tax base, he said.
Fillmore introduced a school funding equalization measure during the 2016 Legislature, but it didn't get any traction in part because it was made public so late in the session. Earlier this year, he sponsored a school equalization funding bill that passed the Senate but was not addressed in the House.
Critics argued the proposal didn't address the underlying problem: Utah does not provide enough resources to educate children.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he believes the legislation has a better chance of passing during the 2018 session because “we have to do what is politically possible and economically sensible. What you did last year was both.”
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is a co-sponsor of this year's version of the legislation.
While the appropriations committee didn’t address a specific piece of legislation, Fillmore said his bill would freeze the basic property tax rate at the current level to generate $22 million per year and likely more each year through inflation.
That funding would be matched with new growth in the state education fund for total equity funding of about $44 million.
The proposal also envisions increasing funding for "necessarily existent small schools" by $1.5 million over three years, and restoring pupil transportation reimbursement funding to 2008 levels by appropriating $5 million over five years.
It would also make the cap on local school board levies uniform.1 comment on this story
While some lawmakers were supportive, others, such as Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, expressed concern “that some districts would be benefitted at the expense of other districts,” particularly if the equalization initiative were funded by “shaving off a third of the weighted pupil unit increase every year” as contemplated in previous versions of the legislation.
Fillmore said funding for the initiative would not necessarily come from increases to the value of the weighted pupil unit, but it would come from the education fund, which is funded by state income tax revenues.
“It certainly needs to come from the education fund,” he said. “There’s really not a source of money besides that.”
“I look forward to seeing the details,” Briscoe said.