Help for Jordan District may be on the way

Published March 5, 2010 8:54 pm
Legislation » Bills would throw a financial lifeline to school districts.
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Some relief may be in sight for the Jordan School District -- and other districts as well.

Two bills that would throw a financial lifeline to school districts cleared major legislative hurdles Friday, with one passing the House and the other clearing the Senate.

HB295 would allow districts, for two years, to use building fund money for operational needs instead. It's a bill that could help avert some layoffs and class size increases in Jordan, which has decided to lay off about 500 employees to deal with a projected $30 million shortfall. Jordan officials have said they might be able to move up to $10 million if the bill passes.

The other bill, SB175, would phase out Salt Lake County-wide equalization, or the shifting of money from all the county's school districts to Jordan. Several school districts raised taxes in response to the recently passed equalization law, and many have decried having to send money to another district in this time of financial hardship.

The original county-wide equalization law was passed to help Jordan cope with a decrease in property tax revenues after the east side of the district split from Jordan to form a new district. But Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, who is sponsoring SB175, said because of expected changes in Jordan's property tax base relative to other districts', Jordan would actually end up sending money to other districts within a few years. So ending county-wide equalization will actually help Jordan in the long run.

Granite School District, however, could miss out on some potential dollars. If the current equalization law were to stay in place, Granite could eventually be a district receiving money from others, said Ben Horsley, district spokesman. Granite raised taxes slightly last year to help send money to Jordan.

"I think generally it would be nice if we could get through [the equalization law] enough to recoup the cost to our taxpayers, but we do recognize other districts are significantly more impacted than we are," Horsley said.

McAdams said SB175 would end countywide equalization without causing "pain or harm" to Jordan. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who is cosponsoring the bill said, "It actually protects the Jordan School District more than leaving the statute as it is." McAdams said countywide equalization would likely end by 2016 if his bill passes.

SB175 would also allow districts to shift money from building needs to operational needs for two years.

Senate Minority Leader Pat Jones, D-Holladay, called the bill "a win-win situation."

SB175 passed the Senate 23-1 on Friday and now goes to the House.

HB295 earned similar support in the House, passing that body unanimously, with several lawmakers commenting that allowing districts to shift money between funds would help more than just the Jordan district.

"This will really help the people in Grand County, and they are doing everything they can to also help themselves," said Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price. Grand has been struggling with a financial crisis caused by wildly inaccurate accounting.

House budget chairman Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, worried about giving districts too much control over state dollars and tried to limit the flexibility to one year, but ultimately lawmakers chose to keep the flexibility in place for two years.

"This is not going to be a silver bullet by any means," said bill sponsor Rep. Kenneth Sumsion, R-American Fork. "I'm not standing here saying this will solve Jordan's problems or any of our other district's problems. This is a bridge."

Stephenson said Friday he thinks the bill has a good chance of passing the Senate.

Earlier this week, Jordan parents and teachers rallied at the Capitol in support of HB295.

"HB295 gives us the latitude as a district to use the money ... as we see fit at this time," said John Lambourne, an assistant football coach and teacher at Bingham High. "If I have a personal budget that has a shortfall, I'm not painting and remodeling the house."

Cathy McKitrick contributed to this report.

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