Utah schools are finding that tax increases are a hard ask with inflation-weary residents
During a packed Aug. 3 hearing at the Riverton High School auditorium, the Jordan School District board tried to make their case for why they needed more money. Specifically, a 26% bump in property taxes. Which is about $250 more a year per the average home value there.
Multiple unprecedented school years, driven by the pandemic, have compounded impacts on students’ academic performance and mental health, they said. Now student needs are greater, requiring more personalized instruction and a variety of educational choices, from online classes to dual immersion programs. Meanwhile, teachers and school staff are overworked and might leave unless they’re paid more.
All told, the board said they’d need to raise an additional $30 million to cover costs. But for the majority of the attendees in the southern Salt Lake County district, now is not the time to raise taxes.
“You’re asking for Disneyworld when I just told my 9-year-old we couldn’t go to the county pool because it was too expensive right now,” said Naketa Horne, a mother of six in the district. “Think about what you’re asking.”
The five-hour meeting was filled with resident after resident speaking out against the district's proposal. Only a few in the crowd supported the increase, including two district counselors, who agreed with the need for more staff positions and mental health support.
“I’m having to say I can’t retire now,” said resident Richard Eddington, who added the tax hike would bring his yearly rate to more than $3,000. “I don’t have the power to go out and tax someone. Your vote tonight holds me hostage.”
The school board ultimately voted to approve the increase.
Jordan is among the nearly 90 districts, municipalities and government entities across the state that want a tax increase this year. That’s an unusually high number, spurred by inflation and ongoing pandemic impacts, according to the Utah Taxpayers Association.
Todd Hauber, the president-elect of the Utah Association of School Business Officials and business administrator with the Park City School District, said those economic challenges are nearly universal. But school districts’ request for more tax revenue is also an individual decision reflecting individual needs.
In Wayne County, where school district officials have proposed a nearly 41% tax rate increase, the revenue is largely targeted for upgrades to old buildings particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. In Salt Lake City, a higher rate is needed primarily for salary increases.
It's not always easy to ask the community for more money, Hauber said, particularly when many residents are struggling themselves. The response often depends not just on the pitch, he said, but on a district’s relationship with its community.
He noted residents in the Jordan District have been much more critical of how it spends its money since the split that created the Canyons School District in 2007. Many felt the move was unfair to Jordan taxpayers, which may account for some of the skepticism residents showed.
“You [as a district] want to find yourself in that positive space where you're seen as an asset of the community and supportive of the families and the children of the community,” he said. “And at the level the community is able to support, both financially and with their time and efforts.”