ST. GEORGE — School district administrators and teachers from Iron and Washington counties, state representatives, parents, business owners and citizens gathered at a public meeting held at Legacy Elementary in St. George Tuesday evening to listen to and comment on a presentation given by the Our Schools Now group regarding its proposed ballot initiative.
Officially named “The Teacher and Student Success Act,” the initiative seeks to increase the state sales and income tax in order to generate more revenue for education funding. The initiative calls for a half-percent increase in the state sales and income tax rates to be implemented incrementally over the course of three years.
When fully implemented, an increase in the state sales tax rate from 4.7 to 5.2 percent will generate $250 million annually and an increase in the state income tax rate from 5.0 to 5.50 percent will generate $450 million annually – that is, collectively, $700 million annually to be invested into education. Figures from the Our Schools Now initiative translate the increase to roughly $1,000 benefit per student.
The monies would go toward all public education with 85 percent going toward grades K-12 and the other 15 percent going toward higher education including public colleges, universities and technical colleges.
Investment of increased funds would be based on school enrollment. According to estimates stated in handouts at the meeting, an elementary school with 400 students would receive approximately $400,000 annually.
For the purpose of the St. George meeting, the presentation estimated that Legacy Elementary would receive $572,000 while Dixie State University would receive roughly $4.7 million annually.
The meeting held in St. George was one of seven meetings held throughout Utah Tuesday. Additional meetings were held in Vernal, Price, Ephraim, Logan, Orem and Salt Lake City.
The purpose of the meeting was to inform and seek input from the public as the group moves forward in the process of getting its initiative on the 2018 ballot.
The Our Schools Now campaign is co-chaired by Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zion’s Bank; Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies; and Ron Jibson, retired CEO of Questar Gas. It is backed by a host of Utah business and education leaders. A full list of steering committee members can be viewed here.
The group’s goal is to help create better education outcomes by making sure that every teacher can be successful in the classroom and to give Utah voters the opportunity to decide for themselves how to invest in the improvement of education.
“That’s the biggest thing we can do to improve education in this state is to make sure that we can hire teachers, keep them in the classroom and give them the tools and the professional development they need to be successful,” said Bob Marquardt, a member of the Our Schools Now executive committee and one of the originators of the initiative.
Marquardt gave the presentation at the St. George meeting.
Utah faces some significant challenges when it comes to educating the youth of the state including holding the dubious honor of having the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation. Utah also has one of if not the largest average family size, said state Rep. Jon Stanard.
Despite the negative numbers, however, Utah continues to be a top state in education outcome. A recent U.S. News & World Report survey ranked Utah No. 9 among best states for education.
But educators like Amy Barton, a teacher in the Washington County School District and president of the Washington County Education Association, said that all of that success is coming at the expense of teachers who continue to work with very few resources; resources like school supplies and necessary time for lesson preparation.
Barton said that almost all teachers in Utah live and work by a similar motto: “We stack em’ deep and teach em’ cheap,” adding that it is not something to be proud of. “We need to move on from that perspective,” she said.
Due to a statewide teacher shortage, largely caused by low teacher wages, teachers are now having to use their valuable time to help mentor inexperienced teachers who are entering the school districts through alternate paths.
Additionally, Washington County School District is losing out on attracting qualified teachers in large numbers because those teachers are being enticed to bigger school districts in northern Utah that can offer more money.
And even smaller school districts such as those found in Garfield, Kane, Piute and sometimes Iron counties are in turn losing their teachers to districts like Washington and Iron counties, Barton said, which are able to offer a little more money.
“We’re in turn almost poaching the teachers that they would like to hire because we were able to raise our pay scale a little bit more,” Barton said.
It is Barton’s hope that the “The Teacher and Student Success Act” would allow for greater parity across the state and give all the school districts the ability to attract and maintain qualified educators by providing the funding for needed wage increases as well as support in the classroom.
Though some concerns were expressed, most of the education administrators – including Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson and Iron County School District Superintendent Shannon Dulaney – and longtime Utah teachers spoke in favor of the initiative.
“Nothing is better than to invest in the future of our world through education,” Bergeson said in his remarks during the meeting.
While the majority of those who spoke during the public comment period of the meeting tended to agree that they want to see children succeed in education, many disagreed that raising taxes or even increasing education spending is the way to do that. A common theme from those opposed to the initiative was that throwing more money at a problem does not necessarily equate to a solution.
Eric Palmer, a small business owner and father of five children, said that increasing taxes is like an addiction, one that is fed every election cycle.
“When I look at the history of all the tax increases in Utah and locally for schools, they never work,” Palmer said. “They just come back the next election cycle and ask for more money.”
Palmer said citizens allow this to happen because they love their children and want to see them succeed but, he added, when a group asks for a tax increase they almost always use the love people have for their children against them in order to essentially steal their money.
That money, many commenters said, would come out of the pockets of the lower and middle class and take food from their tables.
“The neediest most vulnerable families, those making ($20,000-$50,000) a year, they can’t afford to have their state taxes go up 20-30 percent,” Stanard said.
While he opposes tax increases in general, Stanard said, he is particularly opposed to the method that Our Schools Now wants to use to increase taxes. A ballot initiative would bypass the Legislature and take the issue straight to the voters.
The Legislature has been looking at a lot of the issues and challenges with funding education for years and has, within the last three years, increased education spending by $1.2 billion, Stanard said, without having to raise taxes. He urged those in attendance to trust that their Legislature is doing a thorough job.
“We take the time to try to get it right,” Stanard said.
The meeting was well-attended and carried a civil if not passionate tone.
Our Schools Now will have a two-week window following the public input meetings in order to make any changes to the initiative before submitting it to the Lt. Governor’s office to be certified for signature gathering, Marquardt said.
The group plans to begin collecting signatures in August. To get the initiative on the ballot, it must gather a total of 113,143 signatures from 26 out of 29 Senate districts.
“This is the beginning of a discussion that’s going to go through November of 2018,” Marquardt said. “All we’re asking is that people be given the choice to decide for themselves.”
Marquardt recognized that there was a large diversity of opinion represented at the meeting and said that he takes everyone’s opinion seriously.
Author note: The original publication of this article stated that the legislature has increased education funding by $1.2 million in the last three years. That figure has been corrected to say $1.2 billion.
- Our Schools Now
- PDF: The Teacher and Student Success Act
- The initiative’s fiscal note from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget
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