Voters give OK to $650M in local school bonds. Will they do the same for statewide $715M Utah education proposal?

Our Schools Now is hopeful, but 2018 initiative differs from district building projects.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune File Photo) Utah's 2011 Teacher of the Year, Gay Beck, talks to a small group of people as Our Schools Now holds 7 simultaneous town halls throughout Utah to explain and receive feedback on its ballot initiative to raise $700 million for public education through income and sales tax increases. Orem Elementary School hosted this meeting in Orem Tuesday July 11, 2017.

Supporters of a campaign to boost public education funding have reason to be optimistic after Utah voters approved several school district bonds this week, according to Hinckley Institute of Politics Executive Director Jason Perry.

But the Our Schools Now ballot initiative must make its case to voters, Perry said, as a generalized tax increase for school operations offers fewer immediate and tangible benefits to voters than a bond to build or repair campuses.

“Our Schools Now is for student attainment, and that is a different kind of argument for the voters” Perry said. “People have historically been more willing to support bond proposals because it is helping their neighborhood. They can see the results of it. They can drive by the facility.”

Preliminary results suggest voters approved bonding for more than $650 million in capital projects for the Granite, Canyons, Weber and Morgan school districts. Bond proposals in the Ogden City and South Summit school district appear to have failed based on unofficial returns.

The passage of school district bonds suggests that the need for investment in educational facilities resonates with voters, Perry said, but doesn’t necessarily translate to support or opposition for increased taxes to fund the day-to-day business of education.

And by voting in favor of bonds, Perry said, it’s possible that some voters will be reluctant to take an additional bite out of their wallets when faced with the Our Schools Now question on next year’s ballot.

“It’s hard to increase attainment when the buildings are crumbling,” Perry said. “But [Our Schools Now] has to be very careful that people in those districts don’t feel like they have already done their part for education.

Our Schools Now is currently gathering signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot, and would ask voters to approve a roughly $715 million increase in annual sales and income tax collections for public education.

If approved, Utah’s income tax rate would rise from 5 percent to 5.45 percent, while the sales tax rate would climb from 4.7 percent to 5.15 percent.

Austin Cox, campaign manager for Our Schools Now, said Friday that this week’s elections show that Utahns want to invest in local schools.

“While these bonds will improve facilities,” Cox said, “Our Schools Now will increase student learning by investing inside the classroom through teacher excellence and support, smaller class sizes and greater academic opportunities for every student.”

Three polls commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics since January show between 54 percent and 57 percent of voters back the Our Schools Now initiative.

This week’s bond elections showed similar levels of support for the successful proposals, from 52 percent of the vote in Morgan School District to 57 percent in Canyons School District, according to unofficial results.

But Perry said it’s typical for tax-related votes to succeed or fail by relatively thin margins, compared to the blowout margins of other political campaigns.

“Voters are reluctant to vote for tax increases,” he said. “Anytime you’re raising a tax, when it goes through, the margins are almost never in the 80-plus category.”

Cox said Utah tax policies have diverted billions of dollars from public schools — a recent Utah Foundation study put the number at $1.2 billion annually — and he expressed confidence the initiative would be accepted by voters.

“We are strongly encouraged by the public’s continued support of education in Utah,” Cox said. “All indications point to Our Schools Now being successful during next year’s election.”