Utah voters in some areas will decide the fate of more than their public servants come Election Day.
Six Utah school districts along the Wasatch Front and surrounding area will ask their patrons for approval Nov. 7 to borrow millions of dollars to build, renovate or update dozens of schools across the state, in hopes of making room for additional students, new technology and safety upgrades.
“We know it’s never easy to ask people to increase their taxes, but this is for the future good of students,” said Terry Bawden, president of Granite School District’s Board of Education.
Granite, Canyons, Weber, Ogden, South Summit and Morgan school districts are each seeking approval to borrow money for facilities, with the six bond proposals worth more than $800 million taken together. The individual size and scope of plans for each district varies, but officials say those needs are better served now to minimize longterm costs to taxpayers.
Amount: $238 million
Tax impact: About $190 increase yearly on a $259,000 home.
Project highlights: Rebuild Cyprus and Skyline High Schools and 14 other buildings; 17 major remodels for seismic standards, reinforcing security and making building more adaptable to technology-based learning.
Amount: $283 million
Tax impact: If passed, taxes stay the same. If the bond is rejected, taxes would fall $118 annually for a home valued at $373,000.
Project highlights: Rebuild several aging schools, including Brighton High School, Hillcrest High School and Union Middle School; build a new elementary school in west Draper to accommodate enrollment growth; and upgrades at several schools to bring in more natural light.
Amount: $97 million
Tax impact: If passed, property taxes stay the same.
Project highlights: Build two new elementary schools to accommodate growth in the west and northwestern areas of the district; rebuild aging Roy Jr. High School; and add classrooms to Fremont High School to eliminate portable classrooms.
Amount: $106.5 million
Tax impact: If passed, taxes stay the same. If the bond is rejected, yearly taxes would fall $158 for a home valued at $167,000.
Project highlights: Rebuild three elementary schools; build a new gymnasium for Ben Lomond High School; and build professional gateway centers at two junior high schools.
Amount: $49 million
Tax impact: An $158 annual increase on a $300,000 home.
Project highlights: Build an addition on Morgan High School to add space for 300 more students and build a new middle school in Mountain Green to relieve overcrowding and accommodate for future growth.
South Summit District
Amount: $58.65 million
Tax impact: $297.02 yearly on a $310,000 home.
Project highlights: Rebuild South Summit High School.
Similar to homeowners borrowing money for a mortgage, school districts issue bonds to finance construction, remodeling and other facility updates, then pay those funds back with interest over decades. State laws bars using those funds for salaries or other ongoing expenses.
Half of the districts with bond proposals this year – Canyons, Weber and Ogden – would maintain current property tax rates, many of which were approved for past bond measures. Granite, Morgan and South Summit districts are asking voters to approve property tax hikes to fund their bonds, mainly to accommodate unprecedented enrollment growth.
A majority of districts hope bond construction will relieve overcrowding by adding new schools or expanding existing buildings, along with eliminating the need for portable classrooms now used in large numbers.
Seismic safety is another key driving factor for these bond votes, officials say. Most schools in Granite School District, which has some of the oldest buildings still in use along the Wasatch Front, need some kind of earthquake retrofitting to meet current building and safety standards.
In the event of a major temblor, many of the district’s structures would be vulnerable to collapse or heavy damage to their electrical or heating and cooling systems, said Jerod Johnson, an engineer specializing in earthquake safety who has worked with Granite School District.
In addition to keeping students safer, seismic upgrades would also help ensure school buildings could continue to serve as emergency community hubs in the event of widespread residential damage from an earthquake, Johnson said.
School officials also argue that timing is good for seeking bond approval this year, with interest rates low. Waiting even a few years to issue bonds, they said, could mean drastic increases in construction costs.
District officials also have an eye on the Our Schools Now citizens ballot initiative, which backers are hoping to put on November 2018. That state-level ballot measure would raise more than $700 million a year for public education, through increases in the state income and sales tax.
Lane Findlay, spokesman for Weber School District, said the Our Schools Now initiative came up during discussions about their initiative, but wasn’t a contributing factor in putting their bond on the 2017 ballot.
Of the six school bonds, only South Summit School District’s proposal has received an endorsement from the business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association, which lobbies to limit state and local tax levels. The association said it is neutral on the bonds for Granite, Canyons and Ogden districts and its officials did not meet with Weber or Morgan school leaders.
The South Summit district is looking to build a new high school, so the 1,650 students in the district can be spread out through four buildings rather than three.
That plan not only meets district needs, it will also use taxpayer dollars responsibly despite relaying on a tax increase, said Billy Hesterman, the taxpayer association’s vice president.
“We think together we can help create a facility that is excellent for education that teachers and students can be proud of,” Hesterman said.
Clarification: The bond proposed in Ogden School District would not increase property taxes if approved by voters. However, those taxes would decline if the bond were rejected. A prior version of this story was unclear on that point.