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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill described in turn as "sloppy legislation" or "sound tax policy" and limiting the way new school districts can be formed received committee approval Tuesday on its way to the Senate.
HB84, sponsored by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, would stop the creation of a new school district by city leaders if the difference between the estimated revenues of the two districts over five years is greater than 5 percent.
Hall said the bill seeks to avoid a scenario where a city is able to "cherry-pick" affluent neighborhoods and create a school district with 70 percent of the revenue and only 30 percent of the students.
"In other words," he said, "the new school district can't take more than its fair share of the tax base."
Hall said the bill has been miscategorized as blocking the creation of new school districts. He said districts would still be able to split through a citizens initiative or action by a school board, but if city leadership desires to initiate a split, it would require revenues to remain within the 5 percent window.
"This is a good, bipartisan bill that protects taxpayers, and most of all it protects students," Hall said.
The bill is sponsored in part to address the Jordan School District, which saw the exodus of a number of its municipalities in 2007 to create the Canyons School District and is now facing the threat of another split by members of the South Jordan City Council.
Jordan School District is currently experiencing rapid enrollment growth, which has led to the overcrowding of many schools. District officials proposed a $500 million bond last year for the construction of new buildings, but the bond failed to gain voter support.
But South Jordan officials continue to cite a need for new facilities, and during Tuesday's committee meeting, members of the City Council said that they depend on the "credible threat" of a district split to bring school board members to the table.
"I think this is sloppy legislation, and I think it's a bad, bad bill," South Jordan City Councilman Chris Rogers said.
Chuck Newton, also a member of the City Council, said because cities are limited to their municipal boundaries, they do not have the ability to "cherry-pick" affluent areas. He said the bill's focus on revenue ignores the level of service cities receive from school districts and weakens the ability to drive negotiations.
"What we’re trying to preserve is the right as a city to break away within its corporate boundaries," Newton said.
Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said he understands the concerns of South Jordan but added that the laws regarding district revenue should not be based on bargaining chips.
"I do not feel that hanging a club over a school district's head is the basis for good tax policy," Horsley said.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the bill's Senate sponsor, said he takes "due umbrage" at the suggestion that HB84 is sloppy legislation. He said the bill draws directly from the language of statutes regarding the incorporation and annexation of municipalities, providing consistency to state law.
"This is parallel construction," Harper said. "It's what we have, and it's what we do."
The bill was approved by the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee in a 5-2 vote. It passed the House last week with a 56-14 majority and will now go before the Senate for consideration.