"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Goodbye but not Forgotten

Today is the last board meeting I will attend as your elected representative on the Alpine School District Board of Education.  To say it has been an honor but a difficult responsibility is an understatement.  I have been strengthened and encouraged by everyone's kindness and support throughout these past eight years.  And I thank you, more than many of you could ever know.

But having said that, this doesn't mean everything comes to an end and we drive away into the sunset.  This next year is every bit as important or more so than the last.  Who is serving in public office is nowhere near as important as what, We, the People do to inform that discussion and remain informed and involved.  I would like to ask those who are willing, can you attend a single board meeting out of 365 days in the next year?  Is that too much to ask?  4-5 hours out of 8,760 hours in 2019?  That's .06% of your time in the next year.  Is freedom, education and the future of our schools and our children worth .06% or .12% in that endeavor?  Let me know if you are willing to continue to be informed and involved citizens.  We have great people and teachers in this community.  Whatever the issues, we can improve them and solve them working together, not appealing to outside experts in DC or some Think Tank that stands to make a lot of money when they proclaim that our "education system" has failed.  A thriving educational system that partners with teachers, parents and the student doesn't make outside experts a lot of money, but it does educate the next generation, consistent with the values of their families and their communities.  This is only done when the individuals in this community step up and stay informed and involved.

There are so many things on the horizon, new health and science standards.  (The health standards are especially problematic, in my opinion.)  Math still being taught by cramming 4 years' worth of high-level math into 3 years (Algebra 1,2, Geometry and Pre-Calculus in 9-11th grades, IF you want to get to Calculus as a Senior).  What literature are our kids reading and obtaining their values from? How much emphasis on GRIT and social-emotional learning do you want in your schools, in a formal way, if any?  Do you want EVERY First Grader to learn to code?  How much technology do you want your kids exposed to in schools?  How will you, as a parent, manage their overall online activity when so much of the homework is now online?  If you have an opinion
, we need your voice.

I am grateful for the trust that you have bestowed on me.  I hope I have been worthy, in some small way, of that trust.  Thank you for your support.  As I have said before, you will never know how much your little notes, text messages, FB posts and treats have buoyed me up and given me the fortitude to go on.

My predecessor finished her final board meeting with these words: "When you are in the service of your fellow beings, you are only in the service of your God."  I echo her sentiment and am grateful to have served.

Mt. Vernon, overlooking the Potomac River.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

No on Question1 and School Board Races| A Philosophy

Please vote NO on Question 1!  There are so many reasons why, but the most important is that it sets a very dangerous precedent.  I'll also discuss the school board candidates below [Spoiler: State Board 9: Avalie Muhlestein and Julie King in ASD 1 (Westlake HS area)].  Please study and be informed before casting your ballot.

NO ON QUESTION 1: A Dangerous Precedent
Question 1 is a polling question.  To my knowledge, we have never had an opinion poll on our ballots.  So, instead of paying lobbyists to lobby the legislature or to get signatures for a ballot initiative, you are being used by an organization that was unable to accomplish their objectives by either of those options.  If you can't change laws the regular way, and you're rich and famous, you try to find a way around the normal lawmaking process. Co-opting citizens to pressure lawmakers is now a thing.  

Question 1 doesn't change A SINGLE THING. But the proponents HOPE the legislature will increase gas taxes, and then play a shell game to get SOME of that money into K-12, (as well as Higher Ed and Roads and money for UDOT. Shhh!  Don't tell anyone that part.  It isn't as emotionally appealing as grade-school kids.)  Legislators also know that GAS TAX CANNOT be used for Education under our Utah Constitution (hence the shell game).   If lots of people vote yes on Question 1, then the Question 1 proponents can browbeat legislators into passing, supposedly, their version of legislation that they were unable to get signatures for to get on the ballot. (Of course, politics being what it is, there is no guarantee that what we end up with will look anything like what the proponents are selling.)

But we want more money in K-12 education!  Do the ends justify the means?  Never!  Why are legislators wary of raising taxes? Because the legislators must represent their constituents and run for re-election.  Gas taxes negatively impact those who are struggling, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and those who live farther away in rural areas than those on the Wasatch Front.  Legislators in those areas would be motivated to discuss and debate ways in which their constituents will be less impacted.  However, the majority of people in Utah live on the Wasatch Front.  So, Question 1 Proponents assume the majority of Utahns will support Question 1.  If you and your neighbors can feel good about "helping kids" (and college students and roads), then who cares if we make those who can least afford the gas tax increase suffer?  Majority rules.  And tyranny by the majority is becoming the way to get your pet policies passed into law, especially if you're rich and can spend tons of money to influence an election.

The solution: Donate RIGHT NOW to our Alpine District Foundation.  Don't wait for the legislature or Our Schools Now or a ballot initiative.  You can donate to:

  •  the district as a whole, 
  • an entire school (look to donate to our specialty schools like Summit, Polaris, Horizon, or Dan Peterson), 
  • a program: band, drama, history, or 
  • directly to a classroom at a given school.  
Your donation is tax-deductible and will go exactly where you want it to go.  You can also donate supplies or other materials as well.  Want to donate a set of trombones to the band?  You can do that.  And what's better than just donating directly to our schools?  You don't force others to spend more money on a gas tax that will help pay for roads and college students.  Imagine if those who have spent MILLIONS to finance the Question 1 ads had, instead, donated that money to their local schools!  (P.S.  For those in other districts, you have a foundation too!)

For more information on my concerns with Question 1, click here to see my video.  (Side note: did you know Utah spends the largest percentage (40%) of its budget on education, more than any other state in the country?)

In the future, if Question 1 succeeds in changing state law, mark my words, it will become the method of choice for those with time and money to circumvent the average person's voice. Just a reminder that checks and balances and separation of powers are the bedrocks of our freedom.  Direct democracy: going to the majority of the people and using them as the big stick to beat the legislators up with, violates those principles and disenfranchises those who don't have the time, money or power to object. This is an unraveling of the checks and balances that prevent that other "golden rule"--the person with the gold, makes the rules--from destroying freedom.  Success on Question 1 doesn't bode well for freedom in the future.  Please VOTE NO on QUESTION 1, and I promise you it doesn't mean you hate children.

School Board Races

State Board:
I, personally, like both District 9 candidates for State Board.  However, if you voted for me because of my support for traditional math and my opposition to Common Core, you will want to support Avalie Muhlestein.  I appreciate her outside-the-box vision for education, and her desire to get rid of so much state-level accountability that sucks up time, money, and other resources that could be returned to the local level to pay more for teachers.  At the end of the day, we have state-level accountability because we don't trust our local people and our local teachers.  I want to trust our local people and get the state out of the accountability and data collection business.  I recommend you read through her platform and her issues, and consider a donation to Avalie's campaign.

Alpine School District:
The West area is the only race for ASD where there is much discussion and debate (see below).  For the other 3 races, I predict Amber Bonner (my area--ASD2), Sarah Beeson (AF--ASD3), and Ada Wilson (W. Orem--ASD5).  I had actually hoped there would be more debate, discussion and involvement in these races.  But, unfortunately, very few people are willing to run for school board. (3 seats are up in 2 more years, so start thinking about public service.)  While it is often a thankless job, our society is stronger when people are willing to step up to the plate and serve their community in elective office.  I'm grateful for all those who have thrown their hats into this ring.

For those in my area, I will be voting for Amber Bonner. Amber is very active and involved, has kids still in the schools, and asks questions.  She thinks things through, and wants, more than anything, to have smaller class sizes.  And she find ways to support teachers.  I think Amber will do an excellent job as our representative.  And most importantly (to me, at least), Amber listens to different perspectives.  And even if you see things differently, Amber knows you can still "care about kids." (Our inside joke.)

In ASD 1 (Westlake area), again, I, personally, like both the candidates.  But, my endorsement goes 110% to Julie King (see here and here).  Julie is a tireless advocate for parents and for finding ways to make things work for those kids who just don't fit neatly in the "box".  Instead of trying to find ways to make everyone the same, Julie is actively facilitating parents finding the perfect match for their individual kids in our system.  Julie is a "doer".  She has been a District Community Council rep at our special needs school out west, Horizon.  On one of her first visits, she realized they had serious problems with the entry doors.  She took it upon herself to find a way to get those doors fixed. Julie is supportive of fixing math, getting better standards (not CC or NGSS), expanding Gifted and Talented options, securing Data Privacy, and PARENTAL RIGHTS.  My only regret about not running again is not being able to serve with Julie on the board.  We have served together on the State Board's Data Privacy Commission, and she always has such interesting insights from her experience in Social Work, with the Juvenile Justice system, and as a Foster Parent.  Whether you are in her voting area or not, please consider donating to her campaign.

Monday, October 8, 2018

"What Kinds of Human Beings Do We Wish to Produce?"

October 9, 2018: Study Session/Board Meeting at the District Office

1. Study Session (4pm): Social Emotional Learning
2. Board Meeting (6pm): Includes an agreement with Orem City for the School Resource Officers.  (pp.79-87)

All meetings are open to the public.  Public comment is available at every Board Meeting.


The most controversial issues of the twenty-first century will pertain to the ends and means of modifying human behavior and who shall determine them. The first educational question will not be 'what knowledge is of the most worth?' but 'what kinds of human beings do we wish to produce?' The possibilities virtually defy our imagination. --John Goodlad

The most controversial issues of the twenty-first century will pertain to the ends and means of modifying human behavior and who shall determine them. The first educational question will not be 'what knowledge is of the most worth?' but 'what kinds of human beings do we wish to produce?' The possibilities virtually defy our imagination. - John Goodlad

There are so many buzzwords in education these days: 21st Century Learning, Social-emotional Learning (SEL), GRIT, the 4-C's (or the 6-C's), Response to Intervention, Critical Thinking, STEM, Project-based learning, Guide-on-the-side, Engineering Design Model, Workforce, etc. etc. etc.  It's hard to keep up with them all or even understand what they all mean.

Social Emotional Learning or SEL first really made its appearance (from my perspective) in the Federal re-authorization of No Child Left Behind, called ESSA.  In additional to academic measures, the Feds want us to use "non-cognitive" measures to assess how well schools are doing.  It came to prominence with a focus on GRIT, and a TED talk by a professor who wrote a book on the subject.  Now SEL is everywhere.  The idea is that kids should learn, not just academics, but the skills and dispositions to be successful in the workforce (aka the 21st Century because human nature magically shifted in 2001, I guess).  So, the purpose of schools has shifted from basic academics to creating a comprehensive person.  The only problem is whose vision of that "correct human being" is being implemented?  And is that really what we want from public education?  Who should determine what kind of human being your child should become?  Who is the "we" in 'what kinds of human beings do we wish to produce'?  (Does the word produce come across as a bit creepy to anyone else?)

On one hand, I can appreciate and understand that we want kids to be well-rounded, kind-hearted, honest, and sympathetic.  On the other, what is the purpose of public schools?  Well that goes back to the age-old debate.  Everyone thinks of it as something different, and way back when, our district mission statement included "democracy" as the purpose of schools.  I disagree.  I think for public schools, the purpose should be academic excellence.  Everything else, should be left to the individual child and his/her family. That's not to say that teachers don't teach, especially by example, kindness and honesty.  They do.  But that's just part of being a good human being, right?  When we focus on dispositions, we necessarily remove our focus from reading, writing, and [a]rithmetic. Supposedly, we are doing both academics (what we are calling the Right Side of the Pyramid) as well as SEL (the Left Side of the Pyramid).  Our goal should be to educate, not to tell you what the purpose of that education is supposed to be.

The other problem I see, is who decides what the appropriate dispositions are for our children to possess?  And what are those definitions?  I've found, too often, sadly, that when someone uses a word that sounds good, their meaning may be completely different from my own.

In Alpine, we are focused on the 6 C's (4 of which are borrowed from the 21st Century Learning 4 C's).  They are: Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Character, Citizenship.  All sound great.  But what of the child who is introverted and Collaboration means lots of group-work projects?  She might do very well academically IF she's allowed to work alone, but in a group?  Not so much.  She is learning that she must go along with the group, and the knowledge she gains isn't as important as the "collaboration" with others.  It also puts young children in a very difficult position if they disagree with how something is going or what is being said.  Citizenship: what kinds of student advocacy do you want your child engaged in?  What if those citizenship perspectives differ from those of your family?  And Critical Thinking (also known as Higher-order thinking) has at least one definition in education that I would whole-heartedly disagree with.

...a student attains 'higher order thinking' when he no longer believes in right or wrong". "A large part of what we call good teaching is a teacher´s ability to obtain affective [emotional] objectives by challenging the student's fixed beliefs. ...a large part of what we call teaching is that the teacher should be able to use education to reorganize a child's thoughts, attitudes, and feelings. --Benjamin Bloom

In short, it's wrong to be rewarding personality types instead of the knowledge that every child is capable of acquiring.  It's also wrong to possibly, modify a child's thoughts, attitudes and feelings, not through reason and the discovery of truth but by using emotional objectives to challenge their 'fixed beliefs', those beliefs instilled in them by their families.

If you agree with this shift, then you will be pleased.  If not, you may want to speak up about this dilution of academics with dispositions.


Take a quick look at the agreement (https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1b8lY2ExcO10gchOSZ2hxb1U_whvH2_M2)  I have the following concerns.

1. Restorative Justice:  Restorative Justice, as I understand it, is where the person who is at fault is asked to "restore" what they broke in some way.  In some instances, this makes sense.  If you spray paint graffiti, it makes sense to have you repaint whatever you vandalized.  However, if you physically assaulted someone, the victim of your assault may be traumatized by further interaction.  In this case, Restorative Justice isn't a good idea.  AND, it may not be the best idea as a first recourse in even situations like graffiti.  It is interesting to note that the Parkland Shooter fell through the cracks due to restorative justice.

Excerpt from this article:

Schools also began replacing more traditional methods of discipline with student-led mentoring programs ... as well as “restorative justice” programs, a Breakfast Club-like fantasy where, instead of punishment, the bully or the violent offender engages in talk therapy and group discussions with the kid he or she has been harassing to seek reconciliation.
That sounds like great fun for the victim.
2. Reading Miranda Rights for those 14 and up without requiring a parent to be present.  I don't know about you, but if my kid is in the kind of trouble where he or she is being read their Miranda Rights, I think I should be present.  Also, what about children who have mental disabilities that, while chronologically 14 years old, mentally are much younger?  Shouldn't their parents be present?

3. Student Privacy.  FERPA is the Federal School Data Privacy Act from 1974 that is all but worthless.  Anything that occurs at school is subject to FERPA, whether health-related or juvenile-justice related.  That means these records can be shared with anyone for "an educational purpose" without parental knowledge or consent. 

I would be curious to know your thoughts on these issues.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

ESSA Opt Out Denial from the Feds: My Comments to the State Board

In June, the State Board was notified by the US Department of Ed, that their ESSA waiver request was denied.  The State Board requested the waiver in order to comply with Utah's Opt Out law that allows parents to Opt Out of state testing without penalty to the school, the employees or the student.  (Please read the linked waiver request.  State Supt. Dickson explains it perfectly.)  The Federal ESSA bribery plan requires that 95% of all students in the state take the same state test. So, parents, your rights are being sold for federal money, and a paltry sum at that.

I addressed the State Board at their June meeting, asking them to stand strong against the Feds.  (About 2% of Utah's education budget could be at risk for not complying with this provision of ESSA.  BTW, anyone else remember how ESSA was hailed as THE most wonderful of federal education bills because it RETURNED POWER OVER EDUCATION TO THE STATES?  Also, remember how those of us who read it said that it really didn't?  Yeah.  Shocked, aren't we?)

Since that time, the State Superintendent and State Board Chair renegotiated language and requested a one year moratorium on giving opted out students a 0 for the calculation of school grades.  (Cause kids who don't take the test would have definitely received a 0 for their lack of proficiency.  Wouldn't using an average score make more sense, if you really wanted to know how a school was doing?)  The Feds approved that request, even though it won't given an accurate picture of how a school is doing--assuming you think SAGE/RISE/ASPIRE is an accurate measure.  Instead, this will create a perverse incentive for schools to bully parents to make their kids take a test they have every right to reject.  We are now pitting teachers and parents against each other.  That's a phenomenally bad idea!!

At any rate, here are my comments from the June 7 Board Meeting.

I am speaking on the denial of the ESSA waiver and ask you to defend Utah's opt out provision. The right of parents to direct their own child's education is protected in Utah law. But that right is not granted by the State of Utah. It is merely protected by the laws of our state. As such, those rights are not rights elected officials can choose to remove at the request of the US Government.

The 10th Amendment states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” In a 1982, Utah Supreme Court ruling, Justice Dallin H. Oaks stated: “The rights inherent in family relationships...are the most obvious examples of rights retained by the people. They are “natural,” “intrinsic,” or “prior” in the sense that our Constitutions presuppose them..” Utah Code says: A student's parent or guardian is the primary person responsible for the education of the student, and the state is in a secondary and supportive role...

Our current opt out provision is consistent with natural rights and our state and federal constitutions. We stand on solid, legal grounds. ESSA is a voluntary grant program from the federal government. They have no legal right to require parents to not opt their kids out of SAGE testing. And the Department of Ed will never know, see or care about the students who are harmed by this policy. The State of Utah has the solemn DUTY to protect and preserve those parental rights. And yet, at the point that the Feds offer money and ask us to circumvent those natural rights, should we go ahead and do so? If ESSA were not a voluntary grant, but were instead legally binding on the state of Utah, it would be declared unconstitutional. Instead, the US Department of Education can bribe Utahns to give up our state sovereignty and the natural rights of our citizens because they offer a caveat of money if we “choose” to comply. If we agree, we “choose” to remove some of the fundamental rights we each swore an oath to protect.

In that same ruling, Justice Oaks explains: “We conclude that the right of a parent not to be deprived of parental rights without a showing of unfitness, abandonment, or substantial neglect is ...so basic to our constitutional order that it ranks among those rights referred to in ...the [Utah and the] United States Constitution as being retained by the people.”

With a single vote by this body, in exchange for monetary compensation, parents throughout the state of Utah can be deprived of their parental rights without due process, without showing unfitness or substantial neglect.

We all know from past experience that the US Department of Ed is playing a game of political “chicken”. They are hoping we will back down. How can they justify penalizing the State of Utah because we are protecting parental rights and fulfilling our oaths to support the US Constitution and the unalienable rights it was designed to protect? Please stand strong and tell the US Department of Education they must reconsider. Inform them you are unable to violate the rights of the people you swore an oath to protect.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Tax-rate increase hearing: August 14, 2018

This Tuesday, August 14, at 6pm at the District Office (575 N. 100 E., American Fork) the Alpine School Board will hold a Truth in Taxation hearing.  This is where you, the taxpayer, can have an opportunity to be heard about a tax-rate increase for this year's budget.

The perspective of most everyone in education is that if the amount isn't all that big, then it shouldn't be an issue.  In fact, bond votes and tax increases are proclaimed, nationwide in school board conferences and publications, as evidence that taxpayers are "supportive of public education."  If you oppose a bond or any other sort of tax increase, you don't care about kids and certainly you don't want them educated.  (In fact, some of the conferences have "how to" courses on increasing funding in education.  There is no discussion about what to spend that money on.)  In fairness, for the most part, I think Alpine School District does a decent job with our funding and budgeting. And the intentions of everyone involved, I think, are good.

Here's what you need to know.  Feel free to skim the non-italicized parts for the main points.

1. Utah Law requires the amount of money the districts (or cities or counties) receive from year to year to remain the same, excluding growth. 

So, if we received $100M one year from all the property in ASD's boundaries, then we should receive $100M the next year from those same properties PLUS any additional property taxes from any new developments that came into being that next year.  

How this works: If the total amount of all the property in ASD increases in value, then the tax rate decreases automatically to generate the same amount going to the district.  If the total amount of all the property decreases in value, then the tax rate increases automatically. 

An example.  Numbers used are for explanation purposes but are not accurate.  The tax rate is much, much lower.  And the examples are, admittedly, very simplified.
Year 1: Total property value : $100M. Tax rate: 1%. Taxes generated: $100M x 1% =  $1M.
Year 2: Total property value: $90M. Tax rate:1.1%. Taxes generated (minus growth): $90M x 1.1% = $1M.
Year 3: Total property value: $110M. Tax rate: 0.9%. Taxes generated (minus growth): $110M x 0.9% = $1M.

Truth in Taxation: If in Year 3, the district would like to keep the tax rate at 1.1% or even increase it, so as to generate more than the $1M, then a Truth in Taxation hearing would need to occur.  At the 1.1% rate, this would generate $1.21M instead.  

Rather than following the economy like most other states, that when values increase, the taxes go up and vice versa, ours is the opposite. When the economy is struggling and values are down, the tax rate automatically increases and you are paying a larger percentage in property taxes than you were.  But there is no hearing on this.  It just happens.  When the economy is good, you pay a smaller percentage in taxes.

2. If the tax rate goes down, the district can hold a public Truth in Taxation hearing to increase that rate.  This is what we are doing on Tuesday.  The interesting part of this is that we only have these hearings, arguably, when the economy is strong.  When the economy is weak and values are down, the rate increases but without a public hearing.  So the vast majority of the population is less concerned about a rate increase because they are doing well.

Sadly, under our current tax system, the people who are most harmed by this are those whose particular circumstances make them struggle economically while prosperity reigns around them.  They might be those on a fixed-income (who, if elderly or disabled, do get partial waivers for property taxes), young people and young families, just starting off in life, and military families, for example.

3. The legislature has created an incentive for districts to increase property taxes. The state matches local property tax with state funds, up to a certain amount.  If the tax rate goes down, the state continues to match at the higher rate for up to 5 years.  This creates an incentive for the district to increase the rate at least once every 5 years.  The legislature may claim that they don't raise taxes, but they incentivize the local school districts to do it for them.  It's a win-win for the legislature.  More money in education; no accountability for raising taxes or creating a tax system where in hard times your tax rate just happens to go up without anyone commenting or caring.

Going forward, it would be even easier for the district to just regularly increase the rate every year, that way the increase is much, much smaller, and fewer people will complain.  Doing this yearly, the perception will be that we aren't increasing the taxes very much, and the side-benefit is that people get used to having a Truth in Taxation hearing every year. It becomes as big of a deal as watching paint dry.   

4. We support tax-incentives over multiple decades for big, well-connected companies, like Facebook.  Currently, those range in the area of $18,000,000 per year. (See pg. 181: here.)

Yes, the argument is that without these tax incentives, nothing would ever develop.  But, giving the tax incentives over more than 5 -10 years enters into the realm of predicting the future.  It is difficult for the average person to justify a tax incentive for a big, well-connected corporation, but then come back to taxpayers and ask for a few dollars more.  What's good for the goose should be good for the gander.  If we need more money today, then we probably shouldn't have approved those tax incentives all those years ago.  With a growing community like Utah County, I think we would be hard-pressed to assume that all the development in our communities wouldn't have occurred without these tax incentives.  In the short-term, that may be true.  In the long-term? I seriously doubt it.  Tax-incentives, if you think such a thing should be done, should be limited to 5 or 10 years.  Anything more than that is just robbing future generations of school kids in order to appease the power-brokers of today.  Facebook gets to live here tax-free for 35 years.  You and I aren't so lucky.

5. Increased Tech and Coaching Funding vs More Teachers and Smaller Class Sizes.  Our district/board's priorities don't seem to match those priorities of the people.  Repeatedly, when talking with parents and taxpayers, their biggest concerns are wanting smaller class sizes, traditional math (not Common Core/Investigations/Inquiry-based math), and limits on screen time.

Instead, partly due to legislative incentives and partly due to education conferences, everyone (it seems) in the state and the nation is accepting the narrative that without technology, kids will not be able to function appropriately "in the 21st Century."  So, in addition to the millions that ed tech companies stand to make, everyone thinks that educational technology is the Silver Bullet of education--probably a lot like Baby Einstein videos from a decade or so ago.  (Side note: Silicon Valley execs are the exception. ) Have you seen your kids on tech?  Are you worried they won't pick it up without explicit training and exposure to it?

Also, there is a huge push toward Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)/21st Century Skills, nationally, as opposed to academic content. What that means is participation and attitudes can be seen as more important than whether you know history or math facts.  To our credit, our teachers are being trained to make SEL as important, not more important, than academic content. But, while teachers have always, naturally, included things like participation, honesty, and a can-do attitude as a by-product of their teaching, to focus on those things necessarily removes the focus from reading, writing, and math.

Our current budget includes expenses for hiring more Technology and Instructional Coaches to train teachers to use tech and these other methods (Project-based, Inquiry-based, etc), as opposed to using those same funds to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes.  The argument is that if the Coaches make our existing teachers better, then it's a more efficient use of our time.  One school has had great success with an Instructional Coach.  So, if that model holds, then similar improvements should be seen when expanded across the district's nearly 90 schools. 

Our budget also includes funding for more technology.  As our schools go through our 21st Century implementation, iPads and ChromeBooks are included at the ratio of 1 device for every 2 students.  Sadly, parents don't really have an option for a tech-less school system. And in light of all the negative results of too much screen time, I think we are setting our kids up for lots of problems (sleep issues, moodiness, depression, etc.  See here, here, and here.) by adding to the already ubiquitous screen exposure.  Not to mention, the increased difficulty parents now have in making sure kids do their homework (and don't get distracted), limiting screen time, and knowing what their kids are studying and how they're doing, if everything is online.  

Many people think a small increase in funding is appropriate.  The real question is what do you think? How should that increase be used? Will you be willing to stand up and state what your priorities are for our school district?  Hope to see you at the hearing on Tuesday!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Divine Providence in America's Founding

Note: This blog is written from a Latter-day Saint (LDS) perspective, including a quote from LDS Scripture. The providential events listed are acknowledged by many scholars, and attested to by those who lived at the time.

Two-hundred forty-two years ago, 56 men pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to support the Declaration of Independence “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”  How firm did that reliance have to be?

A mere eight weeks after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Washington and the Continental Army were defeated on Long Island.  But a miracle occurred during their retreat.  British General Howe tried to send warships up the East River to surround Washington, but a stiff wind appeared and prevented their advance.  Later, under cover of darkness, the Americans retreated across that same river.  But now the winds shifted to shepherd the Americans across.  Even so, the retreat took all night.  As the sun rose, there were still numerous troops left on the island.  Eyewitnesses state that a thick fog arose, but amazingly, it settled precisely over the retreating American army.  Once the Americans were safely across the river, the fog lifted.

The Battle of Long Island was not an isolated incident. Dorchester Heights, White Plains, Trenton, Germantown, Valley Forge, Stony Point, Cowpens, and even Yorktown are just a few of the areas where the elements combined to aid the Americans and to impede their enemies.

2,300 years earlier, the prophet Nephi, “beheld that the Gentiles...did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them...[T]he Gentiles...were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.” (1. Ne. 13:16,19)

We are the inheritors of that legacy of faith and freedom.  This Independence Day, we are “bound” to gratefully acknowledge the Hand of God in establishing and preserving this nation. But in doing so, we should be willing to live righteously to qualify for the continued blessings of Heaven on this land.

 As we, like our forefathers, support the Declaration of Independence, may we do so “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence...”

 “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”--George Washington

Monday, May 21, 2018

Tax Incentives for Development: Eagle Mountain CRA

Not all taxpayer dollars go directly to the schools.  Often developers get tax incentives to build things sooner and increase property values, providing  a rebate, if you will, of their property taxes over a set period of time. The Alpine School Board will be voting on a tax incentive for a company to locate in Eagle Mountain on Wednesday, May 23, @ 8am @ the District Office (575 N. 100 E., American Fork).  You can read about it here.  Here's what almost no one knows and what you need to know. 

Tax Increment Financing
When I first was elected to the Board, one of the things I was completely oblivious to was Tax Incentives for Development, also known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF).  There are many different acronyms that have been used over the years (RDA, UDA, CDA, EDA), and we currently have CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency).  The thinking is that if a developer/corporation comes into an under-developed area and develops it, then the taxes that would have gone to create things like roads, sewers, water lines, etc can be rebated to the developer. The benefit to the community is that it takes less time for the developer to do this, increasing the property value sooner than it otherwise would have, if left on its own with the City providing the infrastructure and development occurring organically.  It is an incentive to grow development and infrastructure.  The developer gets a tax break and the community gets faster development and increased property values, and theoretically property taxation. 

Poor analogy, but in essence, if you finish off the dirt road to your home as part of a rebuild of your property, the City would agree to give you a rebate on the taxes you owe in order to let you cover the cost of that infrastructure.  The City then gets higher property taxes from you sooner than if they waited and you didn't rebuild your home, as soon or ever. 

The way the law is structured, each taxing entity (the City, the County, the Water District, the School District, etc) MAY choose to enter an agreement with a redevelopment agency/developer (RDA).  The terms for this are, often, for the next 20 years, the RDA will get to keep 80% of the taxes it should be paying and the city or county or district will get the remaining 20%, or 50-50 or 75-25, etc. This is part of the negotiations.  After 20 years, everyone pays what they normally would.  The "increment" part is important because the taxing entity gets 100% of what they are currently getting in property taxes.  So the 80%/20% is only on the difference between what the developed value is and the current value when the project began.  So, in the case of Eagle Mountain, the current taxes to the district amount to $42/year.  When the agreement is completed, the amount the district is projected to receive is approximately $2.5M ($500,000/20%) in real property tax.  In the interim, the district would receive the $42 + about $500,000 per year for that 20 year period.

More Info on Eagle Mountain CRA
The other thing to know about the Eagle Mountain CRA is they are requesting not only the 80% in real property as a rebate, but also 100% of the personal property tax during that 20 year period.  So, the estimates assume a total of $5.3M after 20 years in property taxes.  What we do know is this will be a data center owned by a Fortune 100 company.  The City has signed a confidentiality agreement to not disclose the identity of the company.  The project area will be 2 miles square (nearly 500 acres) and all of it will be for a data center.  They project 40 permanent employees for that data center.  However, I have seen some Facebook posts from those in Eagle Mountain who say the project could bring in 1400 jobs in construction and support. 

Sales Tax Exemption
Another important piece is the legislature just passed a law giving data centers an exemption from paying sales tax on the equipment they buy.  The assumption is they will be spending lots of money on keeping, maintaining and replacing equipment, about every 6 years.  The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Howard Stephenson, felt this would be a good incentive to get data centers to locate in Utah while increasing the property tax amount that schools receive.  If you only have 40 employees, and you get a break on sales tax, but pay property tax, this would be an excellent way to increase funding for schools, especially in the lowest funded state in the nation.  It was not envisioned that those companies would try to get a property tax rebate as well through a CRA, since they were already getting no sales tax.

So What's the Concern?
Government Picking Winners and Losers
The biggest concern I have is one of principle.  It isn't good government to have government entities picking winners and losers for tax breaks based on how much they can "provide" to the governmental entity.  Who knows that a competitor might not be just around the corner but isn't in a position to make such incredible demands of a governing board or council.  So, as a matter of principle, I always vote no on these--from the Vineyard RDA in 2011 to the University Mall CDA a couple of years ago.  Others on our board see it differently.  And many citizens do, as well.  At the end of the day, why should a well-connected, rich and powerful company be able to negotiate a better tax deal than you or I or any other small business owner in the state?  A company that is said to be on the Fortune 100 list is not in want of funding to pay property taxes for schools.  I understand, in part, the City wanting them to pay for infrastructure, but the school district is not on the line for that infrastructure. 

Why Encourage Growth When Growth Is A Concern
My second concern is I see no reason to incentivize growth with tax rebates, as it were, in an area where our biggest challenge is growth.  We are struggling to keep up with growth already.  Why would we want to encourage more growth and decrease the amount of taxes those who are coming in will pay? 

A data center needs lots of water.  We live in a desert.  Eagle Mountain City says water will not be a concern.  The data center is paying for water shares and they have enough of that.  I'm still a skeptic.  Our city thinks we have enough water too and we keep issuing building permits, but every summer, I'm still asked to ration my watering.  It may look okay on paper, but the funny thing about water in a desert is there is still only so much that falls from the sky.  This year isn't one where we have more than enough.  I hope the City is correct and that water won't be a problem. 

Apples-to-Apples Comparisons
One of those who emailed on this issue also mentioned that, while he supports this kind of financing, it's important to look at apples-to-apples comparisons.  You don't compare $42/year to $500,000, you compare what amount of development you need to have in order get that $500,000 over the next 20 years, if you open the area up for development.  If you could reasonably get someone to develop that area and the improvements were assessed for $157,000 per acre, then the property tax revenue would equal what is being projected under this proposal.  If the assessed value were greater, then we would get more revenue than under this project.  The assumption that the land isn't being used and won't ever be in the near (20 years) future isn't a completely accurate assumption.  Once upon a time, Lehi was considered undeveloped and in the middle of nowhere.  Also, right now in Highland $150,000/acre isn't an unreasonable amount for just the land.  I realize Eagle Mountain is different, but how much development in buildings and so forth would be needed to reach that $157,000 mark?  And is it possible that this would occur naturally in a few years?  If this company wanted the CRA for 5 years, or maybe 10 years, I think you could make the case that it's unlikely that development would accelerate in the area enough to create that level of return to the tax coffers.  However, in 20 years?  It's very possible.  Again, look at our county just a few decades ago.

Pressure From Elected Officials and How Utah Incentivizes Economic Development
We have had requests for support from the Governor, Rep. Mia Love, Sen. Jake Anderegg, Rep. Jeff Moss, and the Eagle Mountain Mayor and City Council.  We have been told that this project is the number one priority of the Governor and the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED).  Additionally, I found out there is a non-profit organization, EDC Utah, that apparently exists and works with GOED to search out and incentivize businesses to come in to the state.  This is done by working with local entities to give tax breaks to these companies, all of which are allowed by law.  The school district is not required to participate in these tax incentives.  But the way this works is everyone else who makes up the 30% of property taxes that don't go to the schools is happy to make these deals, dependent on the school district's 70% being in play.  I don't know how many times I've been told that we have to go along or the entire deal will fall through.  It seems to me that if the entire thing is based on the school district, then we should be the ones who are approached initially, not after everyone else has decide this is a great idea.  (And in this case, we found out on Friday night, with a request to decide last Tuesday.  That wasn't going to happen.) 

A most important point, however, is that no one who is asking for the school district's support is responsible for making sure that our schools are not overcrowded.  There is nothing they have to lose; no risk they have to take.  If the company comes in and generates tax revenue for the state overall or the city?  Great.  If the business being in the city increases the growth of business and housing in the city overall?  Great, they get impact fees to offset the attendant growth.  Except for the school district.  We still have to find a way to accommodate that growth without the benefit of setting money aside for that growth.  We will have to bond.  And if the schools become overcrowded because of this project, not a single person will be willing to look to these tax incentive programs as a problem.  If these programs were sufficient to accommodate growth of the district, then we wouldn't have a problem with growth in Lehi because we've got plenty of these CRAs in that city...to the tune of  $15M per year in tax incentives.  Not enough for an elementary school, but close.

How To Fund Growth In Schools: Can't use impact fees
While I understand the benefit to the City, and if this project were a complete stand-alone that would have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the schools (and how would you prove that), this would make sense.  But we are struggling to keep up with the growth already.  Should this project incentivize additional growth, then that $500,000 per year would be insufficient.  It costs nearly $800,000 just to run an elementary school for a year, not to mention the cost to build and the teachers, etc.  A company that is said to be on the Fortune 100 list is not in want of funding to pay property taxes for schools.  I understand, in part, the City wanting them to pay for infrastructure, but the school district is not in charge of that infrastructure.  If those 1400 support jobs end up bringing in an additional 2 kids per person (2800), that is the equivalent of one very large high school.  Right now, we are projecting we will need to build at least one high school and one junior high by 2025.  So, is it reasonable to assume over the next 20 years that the district will need to build, in addition to what is already projected another high school, maybe 1 or 2 middle schools, and 3-4 elementary schools for those additional 2800 kids?  One high school alone costs $83M.  $10M ($500,000 * 20 years) is only a drop in the bucket in building a single high school, let alone a middle school ($30 - 40M) and multiple elementaries ($20M each).  Unlike the City or the County, the school district does not get to charge impact fees.  What that means is as new development comes in, the city and the county assess a certain amount to go to expand their sewers or their water retention ponds or the police force, etc.  As a district, we have been prohibited by state law for at least 15 years from being able to assess fees to plan ahead for growth that we clearly can see coming.  Instead, we are forced to bond every four years to infuse cash into our system that doesn't already exist to accommodate building new schools.  While impact fees wouldn't necessarily pay for all of the $83M for a new high school, it would be nice to know there was a way to set aside a certain amount based on new growth, just like the cities and the counties do.  Our bonding for growth model is not a model, it's a stop-gap measure.  In a way, it makes us not want to encourage growth in our communities because that growth just means we have to bond and pay for more schools, instead of having something that we can automatically use to set money aside for those schools that we will surely need. 

Additionally, as a district, we only ever project out 5 years.  In part, because we know that 5 years from now, those kids who are born this year, will need a place to go to school.  Everything else is conjecture.  So, to say that Eagle Mountain will not have this area developed to this degree in the next 20 years and that no growth will result for the schools in that same period of time, because of this development, is known only by looking into a crystal ball. 

In my opinion, the school district should not authorize any more tax incentive plans until such time as the state legislature decides to allow impact fees or comes up with a better way of funding school buildings based on a community's growth.  Asking people in Orem or Pleasant Grove to bond to pay for the growth in Eagle Mountain or Lehi isn't a good way of handling checks and balances in government.  And if Lehi or Eagle Mountain were responsible for their own growth, I think there would be fewer problems with overcrowding, and something like this proposal might make sense to the people of Eagle Mountain.  It doesn't make sense to the people in the rest of the district because we need the money to fund growth now, not in 20 years.