The placement of new schools, whether district or charter, is often the source of community concern and debate. Yesterday afternoon the Senate Education Committee passed Senator Vickers’ SB29 School Planning and Zoning Process, which would modify existing permitting exemptions for schools by requiring more communication between schools and municipalities in the planning process. Specifically it would also enable a municipality to require a traffic study to ensure that the traffic associated with a school will not jeopardize the health and safety of the students or community. This bill was introduced in response to HB 104 from 2014, a much stronger and more detailed change proposed by Rep. Cunningham last year. Under Cunningham’s bill, there would have been, among other things, a much longer approval process for charters, and was seen by many as potentially jeopardizing a charter school’s ability to acquire land and construct facilities. Additionally HB 104 would have allowed municipalities to dictate things such as design and landscaping plans for schools – potentially adding costs and time delays unrelated to safety or educational concerns.
Sen. Vicker’s bill is a compromise bill supported by both charters and municipalities as a step towards improved planning and communication in the planning and zoning process. The communication and coordination requirements in this bill are those that many charters have already been building to for years, but can now be required for those situations in which it may not be the case. At the same time, the changes made by this bill will not enable arbitrary mandates or delays by municipalities that could prevent schools from being built for district and charter students in Utah.
Also of note in yesterday’s meeting was Senator Stephenson’s bill, SB78 School District Property Tax Amendment to, in Senator Stephenson’s words, “reduce megadistricts.” “If we’re going to split school districts, it shouldn’t be so one neighborhood can cut and run from … one side of the district … where there is a greater property tax … than another part.” Senator Stephenson explained that the purpose of the bill was to strike language which limits the sharing of the tax base for the first 5 years so that the tax base is shared indefinitely. This way, “no matter what happens with growth on one side of the district, you’re going to continue to share and not create greater inequities than we already have in the state of Utah.” Thank you Senator Stephenson. This is a refreshing perspective.