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TWO-MILL LEEWAY GENERATES INEQUITIES

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Boy, what a tangled web they wove!

Utah's Legislature really didn't think things through when it passed the two-mill board-authorized leeway in the frantic last hours of the 1990 session.The motivation was clear enough. The legislators had the Utah Education Association breathing down their necks, playing heavy-heavy-hangs with the threat of a strike. All of the UEA "demands" had been at least partially addressed, except for the pervasive issue of class sizes.

The Legislature's answer was to pass the challenge along to local school boards. The rationale was that the state has done its share for education in recent years, now the pressure should be put on local districts - i.e., property owners.

At the time, local superintendents and boards didn't fuss. They were as anxious to appease the UEA as anyone, since it is they who bear the brunt of a strike.

Now the reality has come home to roost. The Legislature didn't do the majority of Utah's school districts any big favors through the two-mill option.

What no one talked much about when the heat was on was that districts already had the ability to pass up to 10 mills in leeway taxes to enrich education budgets, given voter support. About half the districts have passed some part of the 10-mill leeway. The fact that not all districts have opted to take advantage of the leeway suggests they had good reason not to try.

Either they don't need the extra money or they don't need it badly enough to challenge taxpayers at the ballot box.

Some have tried and failed. Alpine District has had three unsuccessful levy ballots. Others - richer districts, primarily - have passed some or all of the mills. Park City has all 10, Salt Lake all but one.

The Legislature only changed the existing situation in two ways: They allowed a local board to vote in the two mills without a taxpayer ballot and they enriched the state guarantee of $20 per student for those districts whose tax base won't generate that amount per mill levied. The guarantee was already in place for the first two mills levied in a district whose mills wouldn't produce that minimum. The pot was sweetened by guaranteeing $20-per-student for another two mills - a move that could cost the state up to $6 million.

Had legislators let it go at that, it could have been a good deal for poor districts. But with the memory of a tax protest fresh in their minds, the legislators tried to appease that end of the spectrum as well by allowing 10 to 15 percent of a district's voters to petition for a ballot on any mill levy approved by the local board.

That left districts with local teacher unions looking over one shoulder, pressuring for the money to alleviate classroom loads, and the local taxpayer organizations looking over the other, with pencils sharpened and the machinery gearing up to gather petition signatures.

No wonder districts found some hocus-pocus ways to dodge. The majority of those that chose to take advantage of the mill option didn't pass new mills, as the Legislature had envisioned. They took mills from other budget categories and "renamed" them so they could snatch up the state's guarantee without antagonizing taxpayers.

Granite, for instance, robbed its capital outlay budget of one mill and then took one of its present voted leeway mills and declared that it is now a board-authorized mill instead. More than a dozen other districts did the same kind of financial sleight-of-hand.

Pretty silly.

A better option is for the state to vigorously pursue its current study of public education financing and come up with a formula that guarantees a greater degree of equity for all the state's schoolchildren. Allowing rich districts to get richer while poor districts get comparatively poorer doesn't hold with the philosophy of an equitable free public education for all.