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Can the Park City School District Be Saved From Itself (and Us)?

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  –-Walt Kelly

On Thursday night the Park City School Board voted to increase taxes in order to cover a shortfall and raise $3+ million per year. The reasons communicated by various board members include the need for more teachers due to increased enrollment, enrollment by out of district students, agreeing to too much in teacher salary/benefits during the previous negotiations, and healthcare costs that have risen more than could be expected.

Two days before, citizens spoke to the School Board during a truth and taxation meeting.  Former School Board member Vern Christensen put together a forecasting model that suggested that given the best case the school district would no longer be able to raise taxes (due to state limits) in 6 years.  His worst case had us hitting that limit in 3 years. He stated that the costs were out of line with a reality where compensation rises, pensions rise, insurance costs rise but we don’t have the money to pay for it.  Another citizen said that in 2012 taxes were raised and that was supposed to last 5 years.  She asked why 2 years later we were here again.  Snyderville Basin Planing Commissioner Chuck Klingenstein said there were no programs in place to monitor this situation, no forecasted budgets, no implementation plans, and no assessments of programs.  He also lamented that he felt like he put in a lot of research time during the proposed 2012 tax increase but it seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Unfortunately deaf ears seem to persist.  The vote was 4-0 in favor of the tax increase (with one member abstaining). Yet, during the discussion leading up to the vote, one could tell that the board seems to realize there is a problem.  School Board President Moe Hickey commented, “There is no significant cut unless we cut programs or change delivery mechanisms.”  Another member commented they they previously had tried to increase class size to help solve budget problems, “and the people went nuts”.  It was also stated that they realize program like Early Release put pressure on the system.   It’s almost like the $17 trillion national U.S. debt.  Most people realize its an issue, but it’s just too big to solve. So they let it ride and hope for the best.

The School Board did discuss some “solutions” like encouraging the Utah state legislature to give schools more money, talking about lowering future growth of teacher salaries and benefits, and mentioning that retirement funding requirements may not continue to rise every year. Unfortunately this mix of candy cane wishes and gingerbread hugs isn’t likely to come to fruition.

The truth is that we as a community are nearing our limit to fund the school system we currently have.  Even if we are willing to pay increasingly more taxes for the same outcome we have today, shortly that ability to raise taxes is going to be slammed down on us by state law.  At that point, it is likely drastic cuts will take place.  As has been repeated by School Board members, there are really only two ways to address the issue long-term, cut programs and reduce overall money spent on compensation.  That is what will happen, one way or another, eventually.

Given the current situation, we as citizens can’t demand the problem be fixed but then “go nuts” about class sizes.  We can’t say we need to figure out how to handle rising salaries but then write 100 letters to the Park Record complaining that if we don’t have the best paid teachers in the state our children will suffer.  We can’t say we need to cut programs but then protest when the CAPS program is shelved or early release is cut back.

If we don’t begin to realize that cutbacks are needed, taxes will continue to rise, until they can’t.  At that point the only option will be cuts in programs and cuts in teachers.  Meanwhile, the average citizen’s property taxes will have been raised for education — and if you are one of the unlucky ones your home valuation will have risen from 2010-recession lows — it will be a triple whammy.  You’ll have paid more taxes to schools along the way.  Then your home value increases and you pay even more.  Then the teachers and programs are swept away regardless, leaving higher taxes but worse education than you started with.

Unfortunately there will be pain.  We can’t get anywhere from here without a little discomfort.  The question is whether we as citizens are willing to give our elected officials the “cover” they need to do what must be done now, or will we continue to demand that which is unsustainable?  If we choose the latter path we need to be prepared for an eventual eruption that will likely be very devastating to our community.

Note: if you’d like to hear audio from the meeting where they vote to raise taxes, the Park City School district has it online.  It’s great that they offer this, by the way.  Unfortunately, this time it’s poor quality, so we have tried to increase the sound on the copy below. You’ll likely have to increase your volume to hear it.


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