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My Corner: Utah’s Ugly Little Secret about Public Education Funding

Last month in this column I wrote in some detail about why Utah’s 51st ranking in K-12 school spending per student is a flawed metric. 

I explained that one of the reasons Utah’s education lobby continues to repeat the misleading 51st ranking is to ensure the public and policymakers aren’t focused on Utah’s ugly little secret which, when exposed, screams for correction. 

Utah’s “educrats” don’t want us to know that the disparity in per student funding among Utah’s school districts is as great as the disparity in funding among the 50 states.  

Inequities in Spending Per Student are Undeniable

As can be seen from the accompanying chart titled Utah School District Financial Data, per pupil spending varies widely among Utah school districts of similar size. What can possibly justify significant disparities in spending per student by districts of similar size?

Here are examples of General Fund spending per student (column C) contrasting pairs of districts with similar enrollments: Millard $10,252, Morgan $5,592; Park City $13,851, Sevier $7,701; Salt Lake $9,620, Tooele $6,256. Scanning down the column raises questions about why there are such gross inequities in funding per student. 

While there are many factors affecting these disparities in per student funding, the most significant is demonstrated in Column E, Assessed Valuation per student or the property tax base per student. The average assessed value per student statewide is $674,739. Park City’s is $3,026,544, nearly five times the state average and Salt Lake City’s is $1,017,344.  Compare that to Tooele’s assessed value per student of just $261,690, which is 39% of the state average and just 8.6% of Park City’s.

When it comes to tax rates, the disparities in school property tax burdens perpetuated by legislative failure to equalize more broadly are striking: Park City’s tax rate is just 50% of the 41 district average while Tooele’s is 158% (Column K).  Poor districts tend to have higher tax rates while property taxpayers in rich districts generally enjoy lower tax rates. Equal treatment of school children across the state demands that tax effort yields similar funding per student, but it does not.

Current Status of Property Tax Equalization 

The brown bars on the Voted & Board Local Levy chart demonstrate the tax yield per student in each district for one single tax increment (one increment is equal to 0.0001 on the School District Financial Data Chart).  As can be seen, Park City’s tax yield per increment is approximately ten times the average of the 41 districts. This is why Park City can spend nearly twice as much per student while imposing just half the state average school district tax rate.

The shaded space above the brown on the right portion of the bar chart represents the amount of equalization which has been achieved so far. This has been accomplished by the legislature without the support of Utah’s school districts. The biggest recipients of the $164 million for property tax equalization are the large urban districts with low tax base per student: Alpine $33.3 million, Cache $10.6 million, Davis $35 million, Granite $17.1 million, Jordan $9.5 million, Nebo $15.3, million Tooele $10.7 million, and Weber $9.6 million. [Click here for a complete list by district]

The equalization effort going forward is two fold: First, to equalize all local school Voted and Board property tax effort, not just the first 20 increments as is currently the case.  Some of the lowest tax base districts are levying nearly 40 increments but are only equalized for the first 20. Second, the legislature should increasingly equalize the property tax yield per increment until the state reaches the second place district. (It would be politically impossible to equalize the yield per increment at the same level as Park City.)

Who’s Looking Out for Kids?

When was the last time you heard a single public education advocate, elected school board member, superintendent, or school business administrator mention the savage inequalities in per student funding among Utah’s 41 school districts, much less hear them call for correction to these wrongs? 

Who’s looking out for the school children in low funded districts who have too many  less than acceptable teachers because their district repeatedly sees its best teachers poached by better funded districts?  And who would blame the most effective teachers in these financially strapped districts for leaving their district for an instant $8,000 raise plus better benefits? 

Working Toward Equity

In 2009 I sponsored a bill which would have pooled the local property taxes levied by each district and distributed it back equally per student depending on the tax rate imposed by each district.  Collectively, the State School Boards, Superintendents, and Business Administrators Associations opposed my bill. Fortunately, they had a better plan: take one-third of the annual growth in income tax revenues which would otherwise be allocated for the Weighted Pupil Unit student funding formula and use it for equalization of local property taxes so that over a decade or so, all districts would be generating the same number of dollars per student from their local property tax effort.

Unfortunately, as I and other legislators including Senator Aaron Osmond and later Senator Lincoln Fillmore sought legislation to implement this proposal, collectively, the State School Boards, Superintendents, and Business Administrators Associations opposed the very solution they had proposed! And they continue to oppose further equalization unless taxes are raised to fund it.

Three years ago as I worked as a Senator to convince those districts which had the most to gain into supporting expanded equalization, I spoke at the Capitol with Alpine School Superintendent, Business Administrator and a Board Member, asking why they opposed the equalization I was trying to give them.  Without their support, our equalization efforts had already provided Alpine Schools with $33 million more annually than their local property tax rates had generated. I was urging them to support my proposal to get Alpine equalization funds to approximately $100 million annually over several years as the legislature hopefully equalizes all local property taxes to the level of the second richest district in Utah.  Frustrated by their excuses that they didn’t want to create discord with the better funded school districts, I asked them, “What if your teachers knew you were fighting our proposal to give Alpine $77 million more to ensure your ability to hire and retain great teachers? What if district parents knew you were turning away the equalization funds we’re fighting to get for you? What if district taxpayers knew your next property tax hike would be absolutely unnecessary because you’re getting as much as other districts from the taxes you’re already imposing on property owners in the district?”

Their response was like something from the Twilight Zone. Following my series of questions, Alpine District officials’ wrote to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser describing my encounter with them and demanding the Senate censure Senator Stephenson for bullying them. 

Ironically, the following year Alpine School District brazenly raised property taxes, disregarding the advice of your Taxpayers Association.

Most people are incredulous when they hear this. I’m sure readers are thinking there must be more to explain logically why almost all of the lowest funded school districts in the state are not only refusing to support this legislation to overcome these gross inequities, but are actually joining with the well-funded districts in actively opposing equalization. 

I have learned, after fighting this equalization battle for nearly two decades, that most of Utah’s local school district officials are more concerned about their relationships with their colleagues in other districts who shame them if they speak out and violate the cabal’s rule of silence, than they are about having resources to better serve their own kids. If space permitted I could provide specific examples of how and when this shaming has occurred. The bottom line is that school officials feel more pressure from their colleagues who know about the equalization proposals than they do from district patrons, teachers, parents and taxpayers who know nothing about their own district officials turning away funds.  Similarly, too many legislators turn a deaf ear to the equalization proposals because their own districts are fighting against them.

Isn’t it time we convince local school officials to put their own students, teachers, and taxpayers ahead of their desire not to upset their colleagues in wealthier districts?



One Response to “My Corner: Utah’s Ugly Little Secret about Public Education Funding”

  1. Eldon Ives says:

    This is shocking information, but the human nature that is displayed by those who don’t want to rock the boat for the good old boys club is all too common.

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