‘We can’t afford these luxuries’: Parents blast Jordan school board’s $30 million tax increase

After hearing hours of comments from critics, the board voted 6-1 to increase its property tax levy by 23%.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kings Peak High School students walk in the virtual school's first commencement in Bluffdale on June 2, 2022. The new online school is one program that Jordan School District school board members cited in seeking a tax increase, in part to provide choices for students.

Jessica McCall was in Riverton High School’s second class of graduating students. As an adult with a young family, she was excited to buy her parents’ home and move into the neighborhood where she grew up.

”But then all of a sudden,” she told the Jordan School Board in the school’s auditorium this week, “to get this tax notice that we were going to be paying about $4,500. I was like, oh my gosh, OK. We have all these other things that we want to do for our children.”

Kathleen Lee has lived in Herriman for 30 years, in a home she and her husband built and “were hoping to live in until our days were over.” This year, their property taxes went up $2,000, to $7,700, “which is pretty unbearable for the income that we have,” she said.

Eighty people spoke to the board Tuesday night, with almost all of them opposing its proposal to boost its tax levy by 23% in a $30 million tax increase. Many pointed out their surging home values don’t put money in their pocket unless they sell, and most objected to higher taxes during a recession and a time of steep inflation.

Many also emphasized their suspicion of school counselors, social-emotional learning programs and the overuse of tech in schools; asked for plain school buildings and a focus on basic education rather than offerings like dual language classes; and asserted that administrators are overpaid and the district is mismanaged.

Children can help with cleaning, volunteers can teach or counsel students, and parents or retired officers and military can patrol hallways, speakers suggested, urging the board to look harder for ways to cut programs and costs.

After hearing hours of criticism, board members said they empathized — but defended the tax increase as necessary for the well-being of the district’s students, then voted six to one to support it.

”Truth: The Jordan School District is one of the lowest spenders per pupil than any other district. You live in a state that is the lowest funded for education,” board member Darrell Robinson told the crowd. “… The fact of the matter is, we are not funding education at the level it should be.”

(Jordan School District) A screenshot from the Jordan School District's 2022-23 budget presentation shows the differences in the value of assessed property in each Salt Lake County school district.

‘You’re teaching … gender confusion’

The board said the additional $30 million would fund three priorities: competitive salaries for teachers; additional support staff, from assistant principals to counselors; and continued special programs, from an arts academy to virtual schools to accelerated learning classes.

[Read more: This Utah virtual high school opened this fall — and was at full capacity by spring]

But the crowd criticized that plan — especially its call to add counselors and increase pay for school psychologists.

“You’re proposing to increase services to help children with mental health problems,” said Bluffdale City Council member Mark Hales, “when it’s the school and these programs and these counselors that are causing these mental health problems.”

“Teach, and get out,” he said. “You don’t need to have all these other programs and all these other administrators … hall monitors, social workers, therapists, psychologists. It’s not the role of a school.”

Andrea Hughes said she shared the concerns of her friend, Utah Board of Education member Natalie Cline, about social-emotional learning programs embraced by counselors in Utah schools.

“It frightens me to death that my grandchildren are coming to these public schools — they’re going downhill,” Hughes told the board. “Because you’re teaching them things like gender confusion and to be embarrassed of their race.”

Naketa Horne said the only place children can truly have their needs met is in the home. The board’s responsibility, Horne said, is to teach kids to read, write, and learn science and math.

“That music program you were talking about? That’s not your job,” she said. “I have six kids. If my kids want to learn music, whose job is it to pay for my kids to learn music?”

She extended both of her arms above her head and pointed to herself, turning toward the audience. “It’s mine. My kid needs a counselor? Whose job is it? It’s mine. It’s not your job.”

James Carbine said two of his grandchildren studied Chinese — but didn’t retain any of it as they got older. “It’s a waste of money to go to these programs that our kids aren’t interested in, and they could do without,” he said.

In the 40 years that Dean Pettit has lived in the district, he said, he’s seen countless new programs started. He likes the opportunities the programs provide, he said, but asked the board to “get down to basic education.”

“Put the kids back in school. Why do another online program?” Pettit asked. “... “Sometimes we just can’t afford those luxuries.”

Parents offered to volunteer in schools and to review the budget to find cuts, urging the board to vote against the increase.

Students ‘at a critical breaking point’

As the hearing began, board members outlined challenges the district is facing, from competition for teachers and support staff to the pandemic’s impact on kids.

“It’s an understatement to say it’s a misfortune,” board member Jen Atwood said. “... Many of our students have fallen behind standard benchmarks, due to this. The health and wellness of students is at a critical breaking point.”

After listening to more than three hours of public comments, board member Matt Young noted the district has been able to “stave off” property tax increases by drawing down its reserves to pay teachers.

“Now is the time for us to make that an ongoing item and to invest in the future of our students,” he said.

The district has sought an increase in its levy only twice since the Canyons District split off 14 years ago, Robinson said, and only once in the past decade.

Property taxes are not adjusted for inflation, he noted, while the district’s operating costs continue to rise. “A dollar in 1979 is 75 cents today,” he said, “and I can’t run a school district off 75 cents.”

And, he told the audience, the board has been talking about the district’s financial outlook for more than six years. “We have a budget hearing and guess who comes? No one,” he said. “You need to get involved in this a little bit sooner.”

Board President Tracy Miller, who was ill with COVID-19 and appeared via a video feed, was the only board member to vote no. “I advocated for a smaller increase,” she said.

“I support having counselors and psychologists in our schools. They play an important role and counselors do save lives,” Miller said. “... We have a great district and amazing teachers and support employees. They need to be treated as the professionals they are and they need resources to do their job.

“So I’m not concerned about how the money is spent,” she said, “but l am still concerned with the size of the increase.”