When the debate began, independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook stood in one corner, arguing the Salt Lake School District didn't have to be devastated by tax limitation.
In the other corner was the Salt Lake Board of Education and the school district staff, saying the tax initiatives would deeply cut into school money and thus hurt the district's programs, personnel and schoolchildren.More than two hours later, after numerous volleys between the tax-limitation supporter and the educators, the debate ended, with Cook in his same corner and the board and district staff in theirs.
The fact that the debate didn't change any minds was evident later, when the board voted in its regular meeting Tuesday night, to oppose the tax initiatives. Its resolution said the initiatives' passage would cause the district to lose at least $15 million and 300 employees would be terminated.
"The quality of education for the city's children and youths would, in the judgment of the board, diminish to the point that educational excellence would become an empty dream," the resolution said.
The board had planned to vote on its resolution Sept. 6, but delayed action after Cook appeared personally to appeal for a chance to present his viewpoints on how tax cuts could be handled.
The board scheduled the afternoon study session to listen to his arguments. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Wilson and Gov. Norm Bangerter were also invited, although neither came. Wilson sent a letter explaining why he opposes the tax initiatives.
Cook said even though he believes the board members had made up their minds before the meeting, he thinks the exchange was valuable and board members might think about his suggested budget cuts for the district when they deal with the budget.
District business administrator Gary Harmer, on the other hand, didn't appear convinced. He called Cook's plan "pure fantasy - wishful thinking that ignores some hard facts."
Like other debates over the impact of the tax initiatives, much of this one focused on exactly how much money would be cut. The school district contended that the Salt Lake schools, which rely more heavily on property taxes than other districts because of the added voted leeway, would stand to lose $17.5 million from the change in property tax rates.
Cook disagreed, saying adjustments could be made in how the state applies the tax cuts to the revenue distributed to school districts. He said he believes tax limitation could work with an overall budget reduction of $7.85 million in the Salt Lake School District.
The candidate said he didn't want teacher salaries or textbooks to be hurt, so he suggested possible budget cuts in auxiliary instruction (counselors, librarians, testing services and their support staff), curriculum development, central business administration, maintenance and operation, environmental conditioning, capital outlay and school food services through competitive bidding.
He also mentioned consideration of a countywide, consolidated school district.