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Equalization = winners, losers

Jordan-west to benefit; some tax hikes are likely

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Salt Lake County taxpayers: Open your wallets.

Unless you're on the west side of Jordan School District. Then, you can fold yours up a little.

The House on Friday approved a so-called school building equalization bill, brought on by the Jordan District split. But the bill mostly spreads $15 million in one-time money to every Utah school district except Park City, which has the state's heftiest tax base. And the only property tax equalization is in Salt Lake County, where four school districts would have to pony up to give the new Jordan-west district $12 million.

That essentially guarantees property tax hikes in Murray, Salt Lake City and Granite District and the Jordan-east district.

Last November, east-side voters decided to secede from the state's largest district, taking more than half the tax base but fewer than half the kids. That left the growing west side with huge student enrollment growth and small means to pay for new schools. Lawmakers saw that coming last summer but could not resolve the matter in an August special session. They vowed to take care of it now.

SB48, substituted for a fifth time Friday and amended on top of that, raises the state school building aid fund to just over $42 million.

The big winners would be Davis with $8.6 million (about $2 million more than it's getting now;) Nebo District, with $7 million ($3 million more than now;) and Tooele with $5.6 million (nearly $4 million more than the current amount.) Jordan more than triples what it's getting now, to $1.8 million, and Washington District's $1.5 million would be nearly four times its current funding.

But Alpine's $2.6 million is about half what it received this school year, raising questions among some House Republicans.

"It spreads the additional funding of $15 million out more fully through our state, creates many more winners and does not appreciatively injure anyone," said Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield. "I think it will serve our state well."

But several Salt Lake County representatives disagree with the rest of the bill, which hits up Salt Lake area districts to help out Jordan-west.

"(We're) creating a system right now that is for the benefit of one school district where the majority of people in that area voted to split (the school district) ... my residents are going to be impacted by that decision. They did not get a voice in that vote, yet they are going to be punished," said Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City. "I think we're fooling ourselves if we think we're addressing equalization. We know this must be addressed on a statewide level."

Salt Lake City has hired a lobbyist just to defeat the measure, as the school district would take a $6 million hit, to be made up in a tax increase, which could stifle city efforts to raise taxes to replace an aging public safety building.

Mayor Ralph Becker says he plans to meet with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on the issue in the next few days.

"My citizens had no voice ... yet they're going to have to eat the costs," said Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman. "I don't understand what a school student in my district did wrong that a school student in Salt Lake did right (to get buildings they need). The answer is, if we're going to fund education, we need to do it equally and we need to do it fairly. The fact is, if equalization does not pass ... my area will see the biggest property tax (increase) seen, probably ever, in Salt Lake County — some estimates are 300 percent."

Jordan-west is about to wrack rack up $800 million in building needs.

"We are certainly appreciative of any help and assistance we can get, and know that it will provide some help and some relief to the challenges of the remaining district," Jordan Superintendent Barry Newbold told the Deseret Morning News. "I think the question still remains unanswered, should this be a single county responsibility to provide equalization relief, or should this be a broader statewide solution over time? I think that's probably an issue that will have some ongoing dialogue and discussion."

Disequalization occurs because of great differences in how much money a district can raise based on the assets within its boundaries and how many students must be educated. Levying one mill of taxes in a "poor" district raises much less per-student than a mill in a "rich" district with relatively fewer children to educate.

Several House members indicated the countywide equalization was a starting point for the larger statewide goal, which they're not quite ready for. Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, attempted to insert a statewide equalization into the bill, but the House quickly voted that.

The bill now goes back to the Senate, which will decide whether to accept the House's changes to the bill, likely on Monday, Senate leaders said.

Contributing: Jared Page

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com