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SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal that would ask taxpayers to boost Utah school budgets by $865 million over three years had its first public test in a grade school gymnasium Tuesday evening — one of seven meetings held across the state.
Educators, business leaders and Salt Lake County legislators gave the ballot initiative passing grades at a public hearing at Wasatch Elementary in Salt Lake City's Avenues neighborhood Tuesday evening.
"We need it," said Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President Lane Beattie. "It's just business common sense." North Salt Lake Republican Rep. Becky Edwards and her Democratic colleague, Rep. Carol Moss, a former teacher from Salt Lake, agreed.
But it failed in the minds of the Utah Taxpayers Association and other critics who said it won't level out a lopsided state funding model that favors wealthy districts.
"Taxpayers already give more than $4 billion to Utah's education system," said Billy Hesterman, vice president of the taxpayers association, adding he believes the measure will do little to drive accountability.
The Our Schools Now initiative seeks to gradually raise the rate of state income and sales taxes half a percentage point by 2021: from 5 percent to 5.5 for income; and 4.7 percent to 5.2 percent in sales tax.
On Tuesday in Salt Lake, about 150 people attended and 50 people spoke at the meeting. It was one of seven being held around the state Tuesday from St. George to Logan.
Our Schools Now says the increase would mean a median household in Utah would see a $416 tax increase annually — $102 in additional sales taxes and $314 more in income taxes. The group projects a total $700 million cost, using an inflation model for 2018; an analysis by the state elections office came in at $865 million.
On Tuesday, several said they believed the measure, if it were to pass in 2018, would bump up now-slipping teacher retention rates in the Beehive State by allowing school districts to pay more.
Currently, teachers are "tired of working that hard for so little pay and so much criticism," Moss said.
Kristin Van Brunt, who teaches high school English in the Davis School District, said the boost would make teachers better at their jobs. Her classes have swelled 46 percent, from 28 students to 41, in the 23 years she has taught, she said.
"It's overwhelming," she said. "The class sizes need to be reduced for me to be as effective as I can."
Not everyone was convinced. One woman who said her young son attends a charter school told the room she had concerns the increase would go to administrators and not teachers. Others, such as a representative with the conservative Sutherland Institute, said they believed money could be found elsewhere.
Alexandra Eframo, of West Jordan, told the group that “money is not a factor of a good teacher” and she believed families with more children should be required to fork over more in taxes.
The push to put the measure on the 2018 ballot is led in part by Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson, who has said school funding is so important that Utah residents should be able to vote on it themselves, instead of leaving the decision to their representatives.
Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and retired Questar Chairman and CEO Ron Jibson have also joined the cause.
Supporters estimate revenue will be about $450 million from income taxes and $250 million from sales taxes. Most of the money, 85 percent, would go to K-12 public schools, and 15 percent to state colleges and universities.
The cash would be parceled out based on the number of students and would go toward teaching, not toward construction or administration, Our Schools Now's Austin Cox said Tuesday.
The Utah Education Association says the move is essential.
"Our Schools Now is the first step" in making sure Utah schools have a healthy long-term future, UEA President Heidi Matthews said at the meeting Tuesday.
But the Libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute disapproves, saying the increase would be a band-aid fix that did not address larger issues in the state education system.
Earlier this year, a first draft of the initiative targeted only the income tax rate and would have generated twice as much revenue, but it later was tweaked after Gov. Gary Herbert and legislative leaders said the income tax hike could hamper economic development.
Lawmakers tried in 2017 to stave off the initiative with a plan that would have restored sales tax on food, but their effort stalled.
The next step in the process is for the group to gather signatures on petitions. It will take more than 113,000 voter signatures from at least 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.