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Jordan School Board OKs 20% tax increase

Holding up a large protest sign with the words "Say No or We Say Go!" Ben Wallis found a way to make his sentiments known on a night when the Jordan School Board was taking no more public comment as it prepared to vote Tuesday night on a plan to address a $33 million budget deficit.

As it turned out, the board had listened to patrons who packed a meeting last week to protest a proposed 40 percent property tax increase.

After spending the past week mulling over patrons' suggestions and discussing options, board members voted Tuesday night for a 20 percent tax increase, as well as cutting $1 million in non-teaching personnel and taking $21 million from the district's emergency fund.

In voluntary actions, Superintendent Barry Newbold is taking a 10 percent cut from his $237,000 salary, starting this month. Board members will take a 10 percent cut from their $12,000 annual stipend.

The board's unanimous vote drew applause from half the audience and boos from the other half.

"It's not fair," said James Anderson, 70, of South Jordan. His wife, Billie Anderson, 72, agreed. "You have to be happy that it is less than 40 percent — but 20 percent is too much," she said.

Seven percent of the 20 percent tax increase is state-mandated, as was 7 percent of the proposed 40 percent increase. The 20 percent tax hike will mean $68 more on the district portion of the property tax bill for a home valued at $100,000.

Taking the chunk out of the rainy-day fund "is a one-time funding solution," said board President Peggy Jo Kennett.

She ran through a list of actions that could be considered for the next school year, including implementing employee furloughs and increasing class sizes, as well as cutting pay, administrators and professional development days.

On the chopping block could be funding to bus students across hazardous areas. Also being scrutinized are community recreation funds, which affects field trips and athletics.

One board member added that a trimester program will definitely be considered.

In comparison to the previous week's packed house and five hours of angry comments, the auditorium of Riverton High School Tuesday night was half-full and slightly less rowdy — but still emotionally charged.

"I'm disappointed. I think they still could have cut in other places but they didn't," said Jamie Wallis, 32, of Riverton, sitting at the meeting next to her sign-toting husband and three children.

The board closed public comment last week and didn't allow for more Tuesday night.

Ben Wallis, 35, of Riverton, said he stands behind the black magic-marker letters on the white poster, saying the board should go. "I was here last week and spoke. And they almost listened to us. They didn't listen to us well enough, obviously," he said.

Several people said after the vote that they will work to get the board members voted out of office. "They will be thrown out at the next election," said Stacy Norton, 36, of West Jordan. He added he will run for the board if someone will pay for his campaign.

Merrill Turnbow, 68, of South Jordan, says he is willing to run for a school board seat. He said he has 40 years' experience in the finance business and has a master's degree in accounting. "The problem we have with the board is they are educators," he said. "They have no knowledge or training or understanding of budgetary processes or financial management. I know how to make budgets that work."

Many patrons said they feel torn regarding the board's decision.

Colleen Dansie, 55, owns a home plus 2.5 acres with her husband in Bluffdale. She says she already pays $4,000 in property taxes.

Dansie is a stay-at-home mom with two children, the youngest of whom is a senior at Riverton High this fall. Her older daughter just finished five years of teaching in the district. "We need to support our schools. Teachers' salaries should not be touched. Other things can be done," she said. "We have to put our priorities on our children."

Dansie's parents own a home just a block from Riverton High and have "dozens" of grandchildren attending schools in the district. "They are on a fixed income, and this will affect them," she said. "But people helped when they were kids."

Dansie said she is OK with the 20 percent tax increase. "It's a shared responsibility for the community," she said.

Some patrons say the governor and the Legislature need to be involved in the district's budget crisis. "Call a special session and resolve this problem before school starts," said Weston Killpack, 73, of South Jordan.

Barbara Broderick, 56, a retired special-education teacher in the Jordan District, said, "The problem is not with these people on the board. The problem is the Legislature. That's who you need to boot out."

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who attended the meeting, told the Deseret News he plans to launch a bill this session to equalize property taxes statewide so needy districts can receive and wealthy districts can give. The money would be for district maintenance and operations as well as for capital improvements.

"That's the only fair way to do it," Stephenson said.

A bill passed by the 2008 Legislature currently requires the four other school districts in Salt Lake County to contribute to Jordan's capital fund. The money is slated specifically for building new schools. Jordan is to receive $12 million of the funding this year collectively from Canyons, Salt Lake, Granite and Murray school districts.

Jordan officials blame the deficit on the state funding shortfall, the recession and the district's split with the newly formed Canyons School District.

For more information and a board statement on Tuesday's decision, go to www.jordandistrict.org.

e-mail: astewart@desnews.com