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ALPINE DISTRICT SHIFTING TAXES INTO PROGRAM TO REDUCE CLASS SIZES

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The Alpine Board of Education proved Wednesday that a state voted-leeway program doesn't necessarily mean a tax increase for district residents.

Instead, officials of the Alpine School District voted to shift tax revenues in special transportation, recreation and tort liability toward classroom size reduction.The shift allows the district to avoid a tax increase and at the same time take advantage of a state guarantee of up to $20 per student for districts that would increase their voted leeway category by up to two mills. Without the state guarantee, Alpine would realize only $11 per student. The measure passed by the Legislature in February gives the board authority to approve two additional mills without a vote by citizens, but Alpine district is shifting existing funds, not assessing more taxes.

But Phyllis Sorensen, president of the Alpine Education Association, said the board should have considered a two-mill increase that would raise taxes.

"I think the board missed a golden opportunity to let the patrons have input on whether they are willing to kick more into the system. What the board just now did was deny them the right to say that `yes, I'm willing to pay my share.' "

Board members, however, felt a tax increase would only lead to petitions forcing a public vote on the leeway. The past three voted-leeway efforts in the district have failed.

The two-mill increase in the class-reduction program will raise $1.9 million in state and local money in the Alpine district, but $800,000 of that will be returned to the specific programs to make up what was lost when taxes were reduced.

The actual dollar benefit to the district will be $1.1 million, said Superintendent Steven Baugh.

The intent of the leeway is to reduce the size of Utah's classrooms, but district officials say a two-mill levy would only reduce class size by one, and they are proposing that additional funds be used for other programs indirectly related to classroom-size reduction.

To do that with the tax shift, the district must certify that the average class size in the district is not excessive.

"They (the Legislature) have really got us caught in the middle," said board member Linda Campbell. "In order to get the money, we have to say that the average class size is not excessive and we just can't."

But Baugh said the district's average class size is 28 and "in some ways and some situations is not excessive."

Alpine School District has the largest class sizes in the state, according to Sorensen.

"There is no doubt we need the money for class reduction," Campbell said. "We don't want the public to think that our class sizes are not excessive. I've been through it with too many of our patrons to say otherwise."

But Baugh said, "If we want to stay tax neutral, the only way to accomplish that is to take $800,000 of it and restore it. That's not class-size reduction."

Board members approved unanimously the shift and will certify that the funds will be used for selective classroom size reduction in the areas of greatest need, for additional classrooms and for technology improvements that can cut back on class size.

"We are acting in good faith and not trying to deceive anybody," Baugh said. "What we are trying to do is bring additional revenue to the district so we can help our kids. We are trying to do that in the most fair, honest and appropriate way we can find."