Commentary: Utah tax reform should not harm school districts

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Abdikadir Aden leads the way through Mountain View Elementary as East High graduating seniors don their caps and gowns and parade through some of their former schools on Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

We write today, as a body elected to represent Salt Lake City, united in our concerns about the proposal by the Utah Legislature’s Tax Reform Task Force. We know legislators care about public education. Yet their proposal concerns us deeply – particularly the discussion of removing the constitutional earmark for public education and the prospect of yet another property tax equalization. It is imperative that legislators understand the negative impact this proposal will have on our constituents.

In 1930, voters passed a constitutional amendment that reserved the income tax for public education. This happened because, in theory, our state values public education as its most important funding priority. We unequivocally oppose eliminating this historic commitment. We remind our legislators that it is the state tax code that needs rewriting, not our state constitution.

For years, the Utah Legislature has debated proposals to improve education funding. Among those is equalization, the idea that all school districts should be funded equally. Equal funding already happens through the state’s Weighted Pupil Unit, and it helps school districts that are at a disadvantage when it comes to funding from property taxes.

The current equalization proposal would go even further: It would allow the state to impose additional local taxes, and then it would take money from “rich” school districts and redistribute that money to “poor” districts. It sounds good in theory, but when examined more closely, equalization takes away educational opportunities from many of the neediest students in our state, including the 13,000 students living at or below the poverty level in the Salt Lake City School District.

For Salt Lake taxpayers, equalization means your taxes will increase, but your children won’t benefit. Estimates show the increased burden to our taxpayers would equal about $25 million over the first five years. In year five, our projected property tax revenue would be $8.5 million; $3.8 million of that would be taken from Salt Lake students and would be redistributed across the state.

This isn’t the first time equalization has been forced on us. Salt Lake City residents sent more than $50 million to other districts when Jordan School District was split to create Canyons School District. Our students’ needs were put on hold, and we are being asked to do it again. Utah’s education funding model should not pit students against each other. And the legislature should not force a local property tax increase on our constituents. This is a state issue, and it should be fixed with state — not local — dollars.

Many of the new taxes, including the sales tax on food, constitute a tax on the poor, and our families will be disproportionately impacted. The Salt Lake City School District is the ninth largest in the state, but we have the fourth highest poverty rate of any school district in Utah. Almost a thousand of our students are considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act. We provide opportunities for our students to receive medical, vision and dental care. We work with generous community partners to support students whose families are food insecure. We do this because we understand how difficult it is for students to excel academically when their basic life needs haven’t been met.

The current proposal burdens Salt Lake families and even removes requirements to disclose future tax increases tied to inflation. Raising the tax burden on our families, when it won’t benefit our own students, is irresponsible and unsustainable. The school funding pie is already too small, and the right solution is not to redistribute funding that is already insufficient.

The demands on the Legislature are many — state sales tax revenue is declining, our economy is changing, and our tax code needs updating. But we strongly disagree with a proposal that attempts to address these issues on the backs of low- and middle-income Utahns. Reforming the state tax code should not disproportionately impact K-12 students, the poorest in our state, and taxpayers in school districts like ours.

We’ve been promised that public education will be held harmless, but that’s not enough. We need significant improvements, and we need for all students to be held harmless. We urge the legislature to consider the impact their proposal will have on the neediest students in our state and to come to us with a proposal that will truly benefit all Utah students.

Submitted by the members of the Salt Lake City School Board, Tiffany Sandberg, president, Precinct 1; Melissa Ford, vice president, Precinct 6; Michael Nemelka, Precinct 2; Katherine Kennedy, Precinct 3; Nate Salazar, Precinct 4; Samuel Hanson, Precinct 5; and Kristi Swett, Precinct 7.

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