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Education, Kids in Classroom

UB Insider #34: How Business Leaders are Trying to Save Utah’s Education System

About this episode:

Last week, a group of prominent business and community leaders joined forces to launch the Our Schools Now initiative, a grassroots organization proposing a 7/8 of 1 percent personal state income tax increase that would give schools just shy of $1,000 for each full-time student in Utah’s public schools, colleges and universities.

In this episode of UB Insider, Ron Jibson, retired chairman and CEO of Questar and a campaign chair of Our Schools Now, sits down with Utah Business‘ Lisa Christensen to talk about the initiative, how it came about, and what the group hopes to accomplish. Subscribe or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.

Transcript:

Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. When it comes to the subject of education, there’s not much disagreement about its importance in helping build a strong economy. There is, however, about how that should be best handled, and how to pay for it.

Last week, a coalition of community and business leaders announced their initiative to give Utah’s public schools, colleges and universities some support. Here to tell us about it is Ron Jibson, retired chairman and CEO of Questar and one of the campaign chairs of Our Schools Now. Welcome.

Ron Jibson: Well thank you Lisa, it’s great to be here.

Lisa Christensen: So Ron, tell me briefly about the initiative. What is Our Schools Now?

Ron Jibson: Well, Our Schools Now is really a business oriented initiative that is tied to the education community with businesses really stepping up to support our education process. And the initiative itself is basically an initiative to create 7/8 of 1% tax that would be used to generate about $745 million a year that would go into our schools. And this includes our public schools, our higher education, our tech schools and so forth and really provides a lot of opportunities all across the board to improve our educational process.

Lisa Christensen: So how did this come about?

Ron Jibson: Well it really was brought about by a lot of concerned people. And I think that’s what’s so great about this initiative. There is no hidden agenda. This is purely what it is. And that is to get our state and our schools in a position where we can compete across the nation.

We want to give our students every opportunity to succeed. And I think what we saw was a ground swell of support from the business community, from the education community, from parents, from grandparents, everyone who has seen what’s happened over the last 20 years in the state of Utah. Where we’ve lost a substantial, over a billion dollars a year, of funding that would go into our schools. And there are a lot of good things taking place.

There are a lot of organizations that are looking at curriculums and those types of things in our schools. But right now, it’s very important that we do everything we can to create smaller classroom sizes, to have the very best teachers and to be able to retain those teachers in that teaching profession, which is so important for our future.

So what I think we saw happen was a lot of concerned people, with no hidden agenda to do everything we can to create a better system. And as a business community, which is kind of the side I come from, as well as being a parent and a grandparent, it’s very important to me, and I think to many others, to do whatever we can to help our schools. And the initiative has all the right components.

It has, you know, certainly the aspect of people having to step up and do the things that are creating change, creating a more positive school environment in order for the funding to be used there. It really came about by several groups and individuals who said, what can we do? And it all came back to the same answer: we have got to increase our funding.

We’ve got to be able to put back some of that funding that we’ve lost over these last 20 years or so, and get that back into our school system. It would be wonderful to be able to create the results and not have to increase taxes or increase funding, but it’s just not going to happen without that money.

Lisa Christensen: Can you describe for me some of the reasons why the education system has lost that much funding over the last couple of decades?

Ron Jibson: Well, you know, there’s no one that’s to blame. I think it’s just what’s kind of happened as we’ve seen various taxes taken away that helped support schools in the past. And different tax structures and so forth, that once those funds are lost, they’re lost and it’s really hard to replace them.

And I’ve been especially pleased with what the business community has done over the last several years. Salt Lake Chamber and the other chambers have been really strong in bringing the business community together. And I think that as business leaders, we recognize that we have a big stake in this, that our future as business in Utah is going to be dependent on us being able to get great students. And great students who are prepared and can compete nationally. And so that brings us the students into our companies, and it makes our companies strong.

And we’ve found that individuals that graduate in the state of Utah tend to want to stay here. And they come to work and they stay in Utah. They provide that economic boost to our state. So it’s really important that way, but it’s something where the business community, I think, has really recognized that. And I’m really proud of the business community in that sense, because I think we’re focused now on what is really important? And when you look at it, what could be more important than providing an excellent education for our kids?

Lisa Christensen: Yeah, absolutely. So with the tax, that 7/8 of 1% on personal income tax, it would bring in roughly $744 million a year, which averages out to about $978 per full-time student in public schools, colleges, universities. Obviously, the money would be used differently in public schools and then in higher education. So how are you hoping to support each of those, I guess, classifications of education?

Ron Jibson: Right. I think that one thing that really intrigued me and caused me to want to be part of this initiative was that accountability of that funding. The funding won’t go to any large organization that will then disperse it out. This will go directly to the schools. And so the funding will go to schools and it could be for different purposes.

The individual schools, whether they’re a public K-12 school, or whether they’re a college or university or trade tech, they are going to be able to look at their system and their school, their individual school and say, this is how we can create change. This is how we can improve our process. They will then be allowed that funding. And then they will have accountability for that funding. And the only way they will continue that funding is if they show progress.

And so I’ve always been supportive of any program where there’s accountability. So it’s more than just collecting a lot of money – $744 million is a lot of money. But think of the good that can do. But those schools will be accountable to show that we got this funding, and we then put it back into our school in these areas. And it could be in different ways, but whatever that school’s greatest need is from their perspective of what they need to increase the performance of their students. And then we’ll look at that. And as their accountability is there, if their progress is going the way they proposed it would, then that continued funding will allow them to continue that process.

Lisa Christensen: You mentioned that you liked the accountability aspect of Our Schools Now. You also mentioned earlier that you kind of came to this with the mindset of not only a business leader, but a parent and a grandparent. So can you just tell me how you got to be involved and why it kind of hit you so hard?

Ron Jibson: Sure, Lisa. This is something that I guess I’ve been passionate about and had a real interest in for many, many years, going clear back to my own education. And recognizing that the opportunities that I’ve had and that my family have had have been through the doors of education. Without the opportunity to go to those public schools, to be able to go a university in the state with Utah State University and be able to get an education, really opened the door for me personally.

And so as I watch the educational process, it really concerns me to see our funding go down, not go up. It concerns me when I see our ranking in the United States as far as our classroom size, as far as other criteria, that shows that our funding per student is one of the worst in the country. And so I want, I guess, every student to have the same opportunity that I’ve had and that others that I know have had.

I’m a father and I’m also a grandfather. I have nine and almost another tenth grandchild. I want what’s going to be best for them. I want them to have the same opportunities and better opportunities than what students have had in the past. So it’s really about our future. There’s no selfish purposes here.

There’s no business purpose, other than if, you know, as business leaders, we need the best students, we need the best employees that we can get. And we’ve found that by having students graduate in Utah, they stay with us. That creates for our businesses the opportunity to be more successful. I think it also has to do with the economic development. We have a wonderful state from the standpoint of the Governor and Legislature, and looking for ways to bring companies and growth into the state of Utah. We need to be ahead of that. Not only ahead of it, but we need to be able to supply the needs of those companies with employees.

So all of this kind of has that full-circle, you know, opportunity. If they get a good education, and if our students have the opportunity to go to school, get a great education, have the best experience possible, then they’re going to be that same type of student only now an employee in our state. That all comes back to the state in returns and in so many other ways.

So I guess right now, my perspective is that I’ve been involved with the educational processes in the state for a long time. I’ve been involved as a Board of Trustees Member at Utah State for almost eight years now. I’ve been involved with other education initiatives through the Chamber of Commerce and through other areas. And it’s just, I guess, something that I’m very passionate about personally.

Lisa Christensen: There are a lot of initiatives, it seems like every year there is a different initiative that’s trying to help the education system. And a lot of those don’t go very far. Why do you feel that Our Schools Now is more helpful towards school than some of the other initiatives and how are you trying to make sure that this doesn’t end up in the dust bin like so many do?

Ron Jibson: That’s a great question Lisa, and I think it’s one that we need to be prepared to answer, and I think we have a good answer for that. There’s certainly, to say that we haven’t had a lot of people from business education, you know, parents, they’ve all wanted change. They’ve all wanted to see our school system improve for many years. And there are many initiatives out there, and they’re all good. But many of them are trying to create this change through curriculum changes, through other policy-type changes. And it’s really an education process.

Many of them are really trying to just get the education out there for the general public to realize what’s happening. And I really applaud them for that. You know, this is not a competing initiative. This is really creating a synergy with those groups to work together. But the main component that’s missing is how do we fund it? You know, there are some great ideas out there. There’s some great resources from these other initiatives that can be implemented in our schools. But unless we have funding, they can’t get off the ground.

We can change things, we can do little things here and there, they’re not going to move the needle without this funding. And so, I think what you’d see and what’s exciting about this is we’re all working together. It’s not a competition. It’s a working together to bring all of those initiatives together. Our initiative is really, Our Schools Now, is to provide the funding. And then, we’ll utilize those other initiatives in saying, ok school ABC or wherever, here are some ideas, here are some things that these groups have worked on that they feel can be very helpful.

Now, how can they incorporate those in their schools? And it’s going to cost this much. We now have the funding to be able to do that. And I really believe that by working together, we can continue the momentum that we’ve already seen. There’s a very strong ground swell of support for this, over 60%, I think it’s around 67% in the most recent poll of citizens in the state who think this is something that we need to do.

So I think the nice thing is, we’re not going to the Legislature with a competing initiative. This is something where we’re coming together to say, okay, let’s implement the best initiatives. Let’s find the best aspects of each initiative out there and here is a way to fund it.

Lisa Christensen: So what do you need from those 2/3 of Utahns who support something like this to actually get it on the ballot? Because you guys are shooting for the 2018 ballot, correct?

Ron Jibson: We are. That’s correct. And it takes time. Sometimes we have to be patient. And I have a hard time with that. This is exciting and we want to get it right now. But we recognize that the process is the process. And so what we’ll be doing is, through 2017 we’ll be gathering signatures.

We need to gather 100,000 signatures of registered voters in the state of Utah that will show that they support this initiative to be on the ballot. The nice thing about this initiative is that this is for the people. This is the people who will make this decision. It’s not the Legislature. It’s not any individual group. It’s basically the people of the state of Utah. And our hope is that the parents and grandparents and those who are wanting the same thing that we’re seeing a need for will step up and go to our website, OurSchoolsNow.com.

That they’ll go in and they’ll read about the initiative. That they’ll sign and pledge towards what we need to do to get this on the ballot. It should be voted on by the people. And so our initiative is to get the signatures in 2017. Once we get those signatures, and I’m very confident we’ll get those and way over that, once we have those signatures then it gets on the ballot and then it will be our opportunity to talk to the citizens of the state, to show how this can benefit their children, their grandchildren and for generations to come and the future of education in Utah.

It seems like a long process, but it will come fast. We’ve got a lot of work to do in 2017. We’re hoping that the people that have already stepped up and indicated yes, they would like to see something, will sign their name and we will move forward with this to get it on the ballot.

Lisa Christensen: Okay, great. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Ron Jibson: No, I just would add that I really appreciate the support that we’ve gotten. From you, from the media, from others, to get our message out there. And I think it’s exciting because we’re seeing all of these factions come together – the business community, the education community, parents, concerned citizens, and everyone is banding together to say, this is good. And I think that the merits, nobody likes tax increases, let’s be honest.

We all pay a lot of taxes. But I think that when you look at how that will be used, and 100% of the money that is raised will go to our schools, it’s a direct line. So this is an opportunity to really make those changes that we need to make, implement those great ideas that are out there, help our teachers, help our schools, they’re frustrated. They want to know what they can do better. They more than anyone wants to see this.

So it’s exciting as a business community to see the rallying support that’s taking place. And I’m really confident that this will be a jump start and really a kick start for us to move forward in the future and create the school environment that’s going to be something we’re all very proud of.

Lisa Christensen: Well thank you so much for telling us about this, Ron.

Ron Jibson: Thank you, Lisa. I appreciate it.

Lisa Christensen: We’ll have a link to OurSchoolsNow.com on our website, and thanks to Mike Sasich for production help. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes and Stitcher and follow us on social media at @UtahBusiness. You can also contact us at news@www.utahbusiness.com. Thanks for listening.

Ron Jibson: Thanks so much.