It isn't absolutely inevitable, but if you live in one of Utah's poorer school districts, odds are that you pay higher-than-average property taxes to support your schools.
Conversely, if you live in a district with high property values, your taxes are likely to be below the state average.And if your district has high total property value, comparatively few children and no need for new schools, you may be blessed with the best tax picture of all. Hardest on the pocketbook is a district that has low assessed valuation, many children and many construction needs.
In addition - again acknowledging some exceptions - the higher your property taxes, the greater likelihood there is that your district will charge your children more and higher fees for activities and classroom costs.
Education property tax figures compiled by the Utah Taxpayer Association recently bear out the generality that property owners in poor districts pay more, those in richer districts less.
Of the 10 districts with the highest property taxes, eight are below the state average in assessed valuation per student. Flip it over, and among the 10 districts with the lowest property taxes, eight have above-average per-student assessed valuations. (See accompanying chart)
The disparity among Utah's 40 districts, while not on the same scale as in some states, is "big enough to be concerned," said Jay M. Jeffery, director of school finance and statistics in the State Office of Education.
Across the country in the past two decades, school funding formulas in more than a dozen states have been challenged and in some instances, courts have demanded complete revamping.
Utah's state contribution to education, funded primarily by income taxes, is fully equalized on a per-child basis. But local taxes vary considerably, giving some districts more ability to raise money to supplement their share of the state funds.
As state education and legislative leaders have watched a widening gap between rich and poor districts, several steps have been taken to address the disparities, Jeffery said.
"We have worked hard at trying to keep any of our districts from going to the courts," he said. "We are such a poor state overall that merely taking from the richest districts to give to the poorest is not a good solution."
The Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee has considered a number of options to address the local funding inequities. During this summer's interim, the search for parity has continued. Several options are likely to be on the 1995 menu for consideration, Jeffery said. Among them:
- Increasing state support for those districts that are below the state average in local revenues. Several increases already have been granted, but many districts still languish well below the average. Rep. Kurt Oscarson, D-Sandy, already has written a proposal that would generate increased support. He is up for re-election, but if successful, he will push for increases over each of the next three years, he said. "Education, including school buildings, is everyone's burden," he said. Many of the state's school buildings are outdated and can't accommodate the technology that is being pushed to enrich the quality of instruction. However, providing state supplements to poor districts is costly. No fiscal note has been attached to his bill yet, but it could require a substantial outlay of state money.
- Some legislators have proposed equalizing all of the property tax revenue that comes from businesses that are assessed by the state, rather than by the counties in which they are located. That approach would provide a considerable pool of money to be divided equally among the school districts but would be resisted by districts that now benefit from the centrally assessed businesses. For instance, Jeffery said, Millard District relies on the Intermountain Power Project plant in Lynndyl for 90 percent of its local education income. It would be painful for the district to lose a considerable portion of that revenue, which currently makes it one of the state's "richest" school districts.
- The state is expected to continue to provide more support for school construction in poor, high-growth districts by eliminating tax exemptions now on the books. Last winter, the Legislature ended sales tax exemptions for several types of businesses, and the body will continue to study similar exemptions for other businesses.
The role of school fees in local funding has been under study for several years. A 3rd District court ruling that schools must comply with state rules calling for waivers for children who can't afford the fees led to extensive debate. Since the ruling, most districts have seen their losses because of waivers multiply. The state total for 1993-94 was more than $1.7 million.
Comparing fees district-to-district is difficult because of the many ways districts structure fee schedules. But a review of district reports provided to the State Office of Education for the 1993-94 school year suggests that the poorest districts have the most potential to collect money through fees.
Exceptions are Park City and Salt Lake City districts. Among the "richest" in the state, they also are at the top of the list when it comes to asking students to help pay for their own education.
Park City has the largest combined textbook and activity fee, at $78 for high school students. Salt Lake charges $75. Park City is among the fastest-growing districts in the state and has been adding buildings consistently for several years, with no end in sight. The district, which has a highly educated and relatively affluent community, prides itself on a quality educational program, with the highest-paid teachers in Utah.
Salt Lake District, while not experiencing exceptional growth, is replacing East High School and has undertaken a $70 million seismic upgrade in its schools. It, too, has one of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the state.
Davis, Jordan and Alpine districts, which all are growing at a fast clip, but have less than average ability to generate local money, charge less for textbook and activity fees, but have lengthy lists of other class and activity fees that can tax a family's resources.
Wayne, Tintic, South Summit and Piute districts don't ask for any fees from students. Others charge only activity and textbook fees and don't levy any other charges for participation in classes, athletics or extracurricular activities.
Rich Kendell, Davis superintendent, believes that it's true that the poorest districts (his is fourth from the bottom in assessed valuation per student) tend to rely more on fee income to maintain programs.
"When you have limited return on your tax base, you look to fees for a way to support activities your students and patrons want," he said. Davis' fees have gone up consistently for the past few years, as have the charges in most of the poorer districts.
Although district income from fees has gone up, the costs of providing waivers for students who meet poverty guidelines have also risen. Over a three-year period, Kendell said, the cost of waivers rose in his district from $50,000 to $100,000 to $150,000.
A legislative task force is studying fees and is expected to make recommendations to the full Legislature during the 1995 session. Last year, a proposal that would have appropriated more than $3.5 million to allow istricts to drop textbook fees entirely was defeated.
Tax rates 1992-93
Tax bill on Percent of
District home state tax bill
10 highest taxed districts
Garfield** $672 117.8 percent
Davis* 638 111.8 percent
Jordan* 623 109.2 percent
Piute* 614 107.7 percent
Morgan,*Cache* 612 107.3 percent
N. Sanpete* 600 105.2 percent
Washington* 594 104.1 percent
Granite* 592 103.8 percent
Rich** 581 101.9 percent
State average 570 100.0 percent
10 lowest taxed districts:
Beaver** $425 74.6 percent
Millard** 467 81.9 percent
Wasatch** 486 85.3 percent
Daggett** 490 85.3 percent
Uintah** Box Elder** 516 90.4 percent
S. Summit** 522 91.6 percent
Nebo* 523 91.7 percent
Wayne* 524 91.8 percent
Emery** 530 92.9 percent
* Below state average assessed valuation.
**Above state average assessed valuation.
SOURCE: Utah Foundation