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In Salt Lake and Utah counties, varying receptions for Our Schools Now initiative’s $700M-plus tax increase

First Published      Last Updated Jul 15 2017 05:55 pm

Town halls » Bid to raise income, sales taxes to boost education draws support, opposition and a lot of questions.

Orem • When school starts for her three children each fall, Marci LeMonnier said Tuesday, she is asked by administrators to donate supplies like copy paper to compensate for strained budgets.

It's a shame, the Provo resident said, that Utah's last-in-the-nation school spending doesn't allow for even basic office supplies.

"We claim to love and cherish our children," she said, "but we are not willing to fund their education."

LeMonnier was among about 50 Utahns who met at Orem Elementary School to discuss the Our Schools Now initiative, which seeks to raise at least $700 million for public education through a combination of sales and income tax hikes.

The meeting was one of seven held simultaneously throughout the state Tuesday evening, as the initiative's organizers prepare to launch a petition drive to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.

"This is an opportunity for the public to share their opinion on the proposal," said Paul Thompson, an Our Schools Now volunteer who moderated the meeting.

Elementary teacher Brandon Engles described how he volunteers his time to advise school clubs and pays out-of-pocket to provide students with activities involving STEM — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. Additional funding, he said, would ease the burden on teachers and provide new and enhanced learning experiences.

"This initiative is going to help make sure our kids get what they need," he said.

The Orem meeting began with a 20-minute, unstructured question-and-answer period, followed by an hour of residents signing up for three-minute speaking slots.

Thompson initially struggled to answer questions from the audience, like whether revenue from the tax increases will be awarded to charter schools (it will) or to private and home schools (it will not).

At several points, local educators and representatives of the Utah Parent Teacher Association intervened to respond to audience members. When one man asked why Our Schools Now wasn't more focused on encouraging businesses to donate to schools, Alpine Board of Education member Jodee Sundberg said districts require stable revenue sources for budgeting.

"That's soft money," she said of education donations. "That's not money that we can count on every year."

Audience members were also critical of the initiative's organizers, which include Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and Zions Bank President Scott Anderson.

Kip Jardine questioned why "multimillionaires and billionaires" were asking taxpayers to foot the bill for Our Schools Now without fully disclosing their own efforts to support public education.

"They're asking us for the money," Jardine said, "and they're not telling us much."

Other comments dismissed Our Schools Now's campaign materials as "propaganda" and critiqued the public education system as a socialist failure forced upon Utah's settlers as a requirement for statehood.

"The early Mormon pioneers never wanted public school," said Allan Hale. "In our public schools, we do not talk about God. We do not hear about God."

The cost of the initiative was also questioned, as was the notion that increased funding would translate to improved school performance. Our Schools Now originally announced that it would seek $750 million through an income tax increase of 0.875 percent, before updating the plans to include 0.5 percent increases of Utah's income tax and state sales tax.

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