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Utah Legislature: Bill that would have given Jordan School District $15 million is defeated

SALT LAKE CITY – Despite 32 degree weather, hundreds of Jordan School District teachers gathered in front of more than a dozen high school and middle schools Wednesday evening to picket and pass out fliers to people headed to parent-teacher conferences.

"We're on a crusade to save our jobs," said Carol Ramsay, a 4th grade teacher at Silver Crest Elementary. "We need the public to understand the ramifications of laying off 500 employees, what that will do to education and what that will do to the economy."

Jordan District is facing a $30 million deficit which could mean eliminating jobs, increasing class sizes and reducing programs.

Hopes for a bill that would have recouped $15 million from Canyons School District were dashed Wednesday night as the legislation failed to pass through the House Education Committee.

HB292, sponsored by Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, would have "equalized" funding between the two districts.

"It had a fair hearing. I'm disappointed we didn't have more support -- but that's the process," said Jordan District Superintendent Barry Newbol.

While the majority of the committee voted against the legislation, three Jordan-area lawmakers supported the bill: Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan; Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville; and Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman.

The Jordan District division occurred July 2009, with the east-side Canyons District splitting from the west side which remains as Jordan District.

Bird told the committee, "We're split. We're done with that. What we're not OK with is the inequity of the funding."

Jordan District is financially reeling from the split, saying Canyons has a higher tax based but fewer students to support. Canyons officials, for their part, say they were left with older buildings that need repair and they are already giving Jordan $4 million through a county equalization program.

Out of 500 positions to be axed in Jordan District, 250 will be teaching positions. High school teachers would also lose their prep period and teach an additional class in order to mitigate class size increases, which could be four children per class.

Many educators say the district should raise taxes and consider a furlough instead. Some teachers say they will cut back on their time on athletics and activities, or even walk out or go on strike, if the board doesn't listen.

The teacher's union, Jordan Education Association, organized the informational rallies during parent-teacher conferences Wednesday evening.

"We will continue to educate the public so they can communicate with their school board members," said JEA president Robin Frodge.

Standing in front of Riverton High School, Ramsay waved a sign reading "250 teachers x 30 students each = 7500; How large will your child's class be?"

The teacher forecasts overcrowded classrooms where "children won't get one-on-one attention" and those who struggle will get left "far, far behind."

Across the street eight teachers shared the load of a 30-foot banner showcasing 250 teacher photos.

"We're trying to put faces behind these numbers," said Jen Coulam, a 5th grade teacher from Silver Crest Elementary in Herriman. "We do agree that something's gotta give. We just don't think it should be the teachers and the students."

Rather than lay off teachers, Coulam and Ramsay suggest the district institute a furlough. A property tax hike would not be "that bad" either, they argue. A tax increase of $56.38 per $100,000 home value per year, which boils down to about $12 a month for a $250,000 house, would generate enough cash to compensate for half of the district's $30 million budget deficit.

Katie Abo, who teaches 5th grade at Silver Crest Elementary, chased down cars as they turned into the parking lot.

"It's about saving our jobs," she said breathlessly, thrusting a flier through a car window. "Talk to the school board. Talk to your legislator."

District officials sent out a letter earlier this week stating employees could be terminated if they picketed. Teachers in front of Riverton High stamped their feet defiantly.

Hundreds of teachers, parents and students addressed Jordan School Board Tuesday night about the budget cut plan. Superintendent Newbold said despite all the public outcry, he doesn't know if or when changes to the district's budget plan will occur. "The board is going to need time to process what was said and make decisions based on that," he said.

Newbold further said he doubts the board will finalize its budget until state revenue figures are in, at least by mid March.

After the bill was downed Wednesday night, Bird said, "This is an issue that is not going away." However, the lawmaker says he won't try and revive the proposed legislation this year.

Canyons Superintendent Dave Doty said he was pleased with the bill's defeat. "It was the right thing to do. We look forward to getting back to work and taking care of the needs of Canyons School District."

Several dozen people from the public addressed the committee prior to the vote Wednesday night.

Kelli Davey, who has children in Canyons District, says her district was left with older buildings that are in need of $650 million in repairs. "It's not fair for us to be giving to them (Jordan)," she said. "Our buildings need fixing."

Canyons parent Kim Abbott said her district is helping pay the 2003 Jordan District bond debt, and is sending $4 million in county-wide equalization funds to Jordan District.

Bird's bill would have brought Jordan District back to the same per-pupil spending as existed before the split.

"Why shouldn't my kids get the same amount of money as they did before the split?" said Jordan District parent Jolynne Alger.

Todd Froerer, Jordan District parent, said, "The east side obviously has all their infrastructure and the tax base. Then they separated themselves from the west side and we were left with trying to build new buildings for our growing population – and a huge deficit."

Go to le.utah.gov/~2010/bills/hbillint/hb0292.htm to view the bill.

e-mail: astewart@desnews.com