School funding remains hot topic at Utah Legislature
Controversial initiative Our Schools Now seeks to increase income tax for education
February 14, 2017
To Todd Hauber, business administrator of the Park City School District, there's no question: Public schools in Utah need more money.
Even in Park City, the best-funded district in the state, the pressures of the budget are extraordinary, he said.
"It's critical," he said. "When we look at the budget conversations that are just forming up now for our school district, we have escalating costs in maintaining our facilities, we'll be going into negotiation conversations with our teachers and we want to treat them well for the costs they experience living up here or commuting up here to service our children."
Like most years, education spending has been one of the most discussed topics in the current session of the Utah Legislature. On Monday, the Public Education Appropriations Committee finalized its budget recommendations, endorsing a 3 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit (WPU) — totaling $90 million — which is the primary method the state uses to fund public schools. The value of the WPU is currently $3,184.
That will provide the Park City School District with additional money to spend in the classroom, or on things like more nurses or counselors in schools, but it's not enough to meet all the financial needs of the district, Hauber said. He said lawmakers have done a good job allocating current sources of tax revenue to public education, but because the state ranks last in the country in per-pupil spending, the Legislature needs to introduce additional measures to raise more money.
"There's a need to step outside of the regular funding channels that the state Legislature has at its disposal," he said.
One effort to increase school funding that has gained publicity is Our Schools Now, an initiative that aims to put a measure on the ballot in 2018 asking taxpayers to approve an increase to the state personal income tax of seven-eighths of 1 percent. That would provide an additional $750 million annually for public education. Many Republican lawmakers have spoken out against such a measure — claiming a seven-eighth of 1 percent increase is actually a 17.5 percent hike to the current 5 percent income tax rate — but Hauber said Park City school leaders support the general concept.
Hauber conceded, however, that Our School Now is asking for a larger increase than many Utahns would likely support at the ballot box. Surveys have shown that residents support the measure when presented as a seven-eighths of 1 percent increase but are much less likely to be in favor it when viewed through the lens of a 17.5 percent hike. The measure would cost the average Utah family about $900 a year.
"There needs to be some conversation in explaining what that impact is to a taxpayer, so they can say, 'Yes, that is an amount I'm comfortable with providing funding into public education," he said. "That area needs to be cleared up a little bit."
Rep. Tim Quinn, a Republican freshman legislator from Heber City whose district includes Park City, said most Utahns don't support an increase as large as the one Our Schools Now is seeking. Additionally, he is skeptical the measure would actually increase revenues for public education over the long term.
"For the first several years — maybe three, maybe four — we would see increased tax revenues," he said. "But in the long run, this is not the way we produce more revenue for the state. We went to a flatter tax in 2007, and today our revenues per capita are higher than they've ever been. So the argument cannot be made, in my opinion, that the higher the tax rate, the higher the revenue."
Rep. Brian King, the House minority leader whose district stretches into Summit Park, said taxes should be increased to fund public education, but he worries that middle-class and poor families would bear the brunt of the burden under the Our Schools Now measure.
"That doesn't have much of an impact in a negative way on someone making $500,000 a year, but it does if you're making $40,000 or $50,000," the Democratic lawmaker said, adding that the initiative is better than not increasing education spending at all. "If you're family is making that much, that's a huge hit, so I don't think that's the best way to go about doing it."
King, who is pessimistic about the Legislature's chances of increasing funding beyond the WPU, said he is also concerned about what message it would send to lawmakers if voters rejected the measure at the ballot box.
"That would be awful because it would give the Legislature a feeling like, 'See, we told you. People don't want to have their taxes raised, even for education,'" he said. "It would make them feel like they don't have to do anything about our funding that is last in the country. I don't want to see that happen."
Quinn said a better alternative to raising the statewide income tax would be school districts increasing property taxes in their jurisdictions to the maximum statutory level. According to the Utah Board of Education, districts can impose a voted local levy and a board local levy to increase revenues in addition to the basic property tax assessed everywhere in the state.
"If every school district increased property taxes within their district up to the statutory limit, the estimate is $829 million that would bring into education," he said. "That's a better way to do it because then districts can decide, 'Do we need more money, and if we do are we willing to go to our citizens, who will directly feel the benefit or the adverse effects of education funding? Are they willing to say yes?'"
Hauber said, however, that the voted local levy and board local levy are designed to fund enhancements to school offerings, rather than the basic education, which the state is supposed to pay for.
"When a legislator says, 'Oh, you haven't maxed out your local levies before you come and ask for money from the state,' it's actually a false argument," he said. "The (state) should be supplying enough monies to fund the basic education, and if a community wants to go above and beyond a basic education, it has the means through these other two levies. So you would never max those first, then turn to the state."