Our Schools Now seeks higher taxes for education. Opponents argue tax hikes never solve the problem.

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.

Educators, civic leaders and citizens attend a public hearing at Legacy Elementary to learn about and give input on the Our Schools Now proposed ballot initiative, St. George, Utah, July 11, 2017 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

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.

Read more: Teachers see raises; school district adopts $330 million budget 

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.

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7 Comments

  • Badshitzoo July 12, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Education doesn’t even begin in America, until your 1st year of college: Before that, it’s all babysitting, with the babies in charge!

  • Proud Rebel July 12, 2017 at 11:16 am

    I’m curious to know if there is any legal stipulation as to how the schools would spend the increased income. Is a major portion of the income, going to go to administrators, admin assistants, and assistants to admin assistants.
    Or is it, by law, going to be used to upgrade the salaries of teachers, and the acquisition of supplies?
    These questions, I believe, need to be answered, (and carved in stone,) before this tax hike is put up for a vote.

  • Brian July 12, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    If I trusted our public officials (and the people pulling their strings) AT ALL, and I thought this would actually make a difference at improving education, I’d be all for it. But since I don’t, and I don’t, then I’m not.

  • Not_So_Much July 12, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    Rebel and many more, you should have been there. Business wants this, teachers and educators want this and everyone agrees there is a problem. Now those that support this think throwing money at a problem will fix it because after all it will be done at a local level. Those who in my opinion are too close to the issue just won’t see is the current model does not work and no amount of money will fix that. I’ll admit I don’t have the answer but a whole new approach for parents not involved, mandates that plain get in the way, changing needs & requirements all dictate new approaches and perhaps the return of old ones.

    By age 15 or 16 some individuals could be transitioned to vocational apprentice programs is one possibility. Has year round school been looked at? How about longer school days? Fewer holidays and amount of breaks could be looked at again. Might more dollars be needed? Perhaps but let’s take tax hikes off the table and look to other solutions to a problem — the broken education system. The first thing I would do is remove Universities from the same pool of funds, it’s in a whole different league.

  • jaybird July 12, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    We now start to see the exchange of public to private school agenda brought on by denying federal spending for our schools. Watch the price of k12 continue to put a burden on the taxpayers of Utah, who really could use the help.

  • utahdiablo July 12, 2017 at 11:42 pm

    $1.2 Billion folks, not Million, Billion, did you read that?…..my property taxes for the school keeps going up 10 – 20% each and every year, who the heck gets a 10 – 20% increase in their pay each year let alone if your a retired person on a fixed budget….you all want the endless tourists here each and everyweek now to crowd all our streets, shops, resturants and so on? …..implement a tourist tax to fund this mess, don;t put even more on we the residents of southern Utah

  • UtahPatriot July 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

    Start by getting the unions out of our education system. Then hire teachers and fire the socialist propagandists that now occupy our classrooms. After that, maybe the kids will be able to spell and won’t be so stupid when they “graduate”.

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