[Courtesy photo]

The Grand County Board of Education is taking a proposed tax increase to the voters.

Education board members voted 4-0 on Tuesday, June 21, to place a levy on the November ballot that would help the school district raise more money for teachers’ salaries. Board member Peggy Nissen was absent from the meeting.

District officials said the proposed increase of 0.001 percent is needed to gradually bring employees’ salaries in line with the state average, while boosting support for academic programs.

The State of Utah limits the ways that the district can spend its funding. And with few viable options at their disposal, school officials said Grand County currently ranks 41st out of 42 districts in the state in terms of beginning teachers’ salaries.

“We feel like it’s our responsibility to get our staff to the state average,” Grand County Board of Education president Beth Joseph said. “We’re just trying to address the needs of our staff.”

Grand County Board of Education vice president Jim Webster said that many past and present employees have struggled not only with below-average salaries, but with above-average housing costs.

“We’ve experienced a lot of teachers and other staff who cannot afford to live here because of the cost of living and the low pay that we offer,” Webster said. “And we need to correct that.”

To make those proposed changes, Webster said that board members adopted a “slow process” that would unfold gradually over a five-year period, translating to an increase of 0.0002 percent each year.

“The plan that we put together is one that we think will really minimize the impact to property owners, because of the way it would be phased in over time,” he said.

If voters approve the proposed levy in November, the district estimates that owners of a primary residence with an assessed value of $250,000 could expect to pay an additional $27.50 in the first year. Property taxes on that same home would increase by an estimated $55 in the second year, and a total of $137.50 by the end of the fifth year, according to the district.

“At the end of five years, it should stay the same,” Joseph said.

That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be any unforeseen changes. If the assessed value of a home goes up or down, so would the annual amount that a property owner paid. But Joseph said the levy rate would remain unchanged.

“It’s always going to be 0.001 percent of the valuation on your home,” she said.

According to Joseph, the board’s push for a ballot question on the levy comes after state lawmakers changed the way that Utah allocates funding for public schools. In the wake of those changes, Joseph said that Grand and several other districts with high taxable values began to receive less money than those with lower taxable values.

The high taxable value has to do with Moab’s draw as a major tourist destination, but even with that infusion of visitor spending, it is not in the same league as wealthy Summit County: A state-commissioned study recently reported that Grand County is at risk of “intergenerational poverty.”

“It’s a real Catch-22 kind of a quandary,” Webster said.

The idea behind the state’s equalization law is a good one, Webster said: It’s designed to do a better job of spreading funds for education throughout the state, from wealthy communities like Park City to less fortunate ones.

“But those unique school districts like ours, we don’t end up benefiting from it,” he said.

Joseph said she believes the school district ultimately has a duty as one of the largest employers in the community to ensure that its employees are paid adequately.

Likewise, Helen M. Knight Elementary teacher Robyn Johnson said the proposal would support those who would like to live and work in the area.

“We can’t afford not to keep highly trained teachers in our district if we want our students to have a quality education,” Johnson said. “We need added funds to do this.”

In the event that voters approve the proposed levy, Webster said the district would not increase salaries across the board, and would instead focus on below-average positions that a salary survey identified.

“If a position is already at the state average or above, (it) will not be increased,” he said.

Before they approved the proposed ballot question, Joseph said that education board members tried for years to make enough room in the district’s maintenance and operation budget to boost staff salaries. But that funding level, which the state determines, has already maxed out, she said.

The district is also prohibited by law from using monies from other designated fund balances to pay for salary increases. For the same reason, Joseph said the district could not use the proposed levy funding to build a new middle school, for example.

“That’s absolutely not the case,” she said.

School district says levy would help increase teachers’ salaries

We’ve experienced a lot of teachers and other staff who cannot afford to live here because of the cost of living and the low pay that we offer … And we need to correct that.