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SCHOOL DISTRICTS OFFER `ROBIN HOOD' ALTERNATIVE

School districts that stand to lose money under a new statewide capital outlay equalization program tried to sell legislators on a revamped proposal Wednesday.

The suggested revisions in the so-called Robin Hood bill would redistribute the proportionate shares that would be paid by Utah's "wealthier" districts. They would not affect the amount the "poor" districts would receive.The amendments, sponsored by Sen. Fred Finlinson, R-Salt Lake, would remove a provision that gives a break to school districts that are paying off bonded indebtedness. Under the original bill, HB65, their share of the pay-in to the equalization pool is decreased for several years to allow them to pay off the debt.

That factor has been a sticking point for several districts, including Salt Lake and Murray, that are debt-free. Their share of the pay-in for equalization is disproportionate, they say. They argue that they are being penalized because their districts have been frugal and adopted a pay-as-you-go philosophy.

Murray, Salt Lake and several other districts have considered a lawsuit because of the perceived inequity. Spokesmen for the districts did not say Wednesday what course they might pursue if the equalization plan is not altered to address their concerns.

"We feel a political compromise is better (than litigation), but I don't know what we will do if (the amendments) don't pass," said Salt Lake Superintendent John W. Bennion.

Finlinson, flanked by Bennion and Murray Superintendent Ronald Stephens, told the Legislature's Interim Education Committee that his proposed amendments create a more fair plan for assessing contributions from districts that have more productive tax bases.

With state and local contributions, the bill generates about $3 million to help poor districts meet capital outlay needs.

Finlinson showed figures that, he said, support his position. Murray, although it is ranked 12th among the state's 40 districts according to wealth (assessed valuation divided by number of students), would be ranked fourth in its contribution to the equalization pool under the original bill. Salt Lake, sixth on the wealthiest rankings, would be ranked third among the payees.

"It just isn't fair. This is not equalization, it is punitive," said Finlinson.

Stephens said his district, which became debt-free three years ago, considered ways to deal with growth and building needs and made a decision to raise taxes and use the additional income to proceed in a pay-as-you-go mode.

With the legislative mandate to share income with poor districts, the money won't do the job as planned, he said. An $84,000 set-aside for adding four rooms to Riverview Junior High School is reduced by $50,000 because of the equalization load imposed on the district. Now he faces the option of asking his taxpayers to ante up again to meet the district's needs, he said.

Bennion told essentially the same story. His district has adopted a $100 million upgrading plan to replace old buildings and make existing buildings earthquake safe, he said. The terms of Robin Hood, if not amended, mean that his district will lose $65 million from its $100 million plan to fulfill the building needs. Salt Lake assumes about half the total local contribution under the bill passed last winter, and even with the bonding element removed, would pay a third of the total, he said.

"(Robin Hood) penalizes us for taking a prudent approach," said Bennion.

Some members of the committee were less than sympathetic.

"Some districts have no option except to bond (for capital needs)," said Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo. Salt Lake and Murray are lucky to be able to adopt a pay-as-you-go option, he suggested.

Sen. David Steele, R-Davis, also said he hoped the focus of equalization - equity for children in all districts - would not be lost in the quibbling over the bill's particulars.

"It isn't a question of prudent administration," said Steele. "There are many districts that are well-managed that don't have the ability to raise as much money as others. The state needs to address equality in districts that are crying out for help. Frugality is not the issue."

At best, the equalization effort represented by HB65 falls short, Finlinson argued. A fully state-supported program is the only way to achieve true equalization, he said. Lacking that "we need fairness in the present formula."

The committee will continue its consideration of Finlinson's proposals during future interim meetings.