Utah Teachers Stage 1-Day Strike To Protest Tax Cut
Angered by the legislature's decision to use a state budget surplus for a tax cut rather than for education, some 20,000 Utah teachers staged a one-day strike last week that shut down all but two of the state's 40 school districts.
The statewide boycott came three days after teachers in several large districts had walked off the job to protest approval of the $38.4-million tax cut.
Education groups had wanted the legislature, which met in a special session last month, to delay action on the cut until the regular session in January.
Many teachers were particularly irritated with Gov. Norman H. Bangerter, who backed a cut. In response to the first wave of wildcat walkouts, Governor Bangerter had said that when he gets upset, "I take two aspirin and go to work, and that's what teachers should do."
At a rally in Salt Lake City, some teachers rattled bottles of aspirin to protest the comment.
"We thought, 'Oh boy, that will blow it statewide,"' said Kathie Bone, president of the Davis Education Association. "The teachers felt very patronized by that statement."
The protests began on Sept. 22, a Friday, when teachers in Davis, Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo spontaneously walked off the job.
"They were just so angry, they wanted to have some kind of protest,'' said Ms. Bone.
The next day, local presidents of Utah Education Association affiliates met and called for a statewide walkout on Monday.
"Educators are really at a flash point," said Lowell Baum, executive director of the uea "I think our teachers are saying legislators must do something to improve public education."
Utah's education system has been strained in recent years by rapid en4rollment growth. It has the nation's highest percentage of school-age children and the highest teacher-pupil ratio. Average teacher salaries are among the lowest in the nation.
Raising additional education funds through taxes, however, has been a politically explosive subject.
Two years ago, Mr. Bangerter successfully pushed for a record $166-million tax increase for schools. But that measure provoked a massive anti-tax movement, which resulted in three tax-limitation measures being put on the ballot last November.
Although the tax measures were soundly defeated, Governor Bangerter only narrowly won re-election. He pledged to implement a tax-limitation plan.
Meanwhile, Utah's sagging economy has improved in the last year, resulting in an estimated revenue surplus of up to $185 million, officials said.
As a result, legislators were eager to cut taxes substantially. Although the Governor called for only about $21 million in cuts, lawmakers approved $38 million.
Representative H. Craig Moody, leader of the Republican majority in the House, said the tax cut was part of a promise legislators had made to the public when they raised taxes two years ago.
"We promised taxpayers they would receive relief when the economy came back, and we promised that we would improve education," Mr. Moody said. "For those who are mad we gave the tax cut, I fully expect we will keep the rest of our promise."
The Governor will sign the tax-cut bill as passed, said his press secretary, Francine A. Giani. "He will then review education needs along with the needs of the rest of state government," she said. "The Governor has not made any promises."
Before the walkout, however, Mr. Bangerter met with James Campbell, president of the uea, and vowed that there would be no more tax cuts during his term, officials said.
But educators remained upset both that education funding had not been placed on the agenda of the special session and that lawmakers had refused to delay a tax cut until it could be considered as part of a full budget package next year.
"They should have kept that money and put it in public education," said Mr. Baum of the uea "We are in dire need of increased salaries, new textbooks, and something to relieve overcrowded classrooms."
Many teachers were invigorated by their walkout, union officials said, partly because such displays of protest are rare in conservative Utah. The last statewide teachers' strike was 25 years ago, they noted.
"We have a major morale problem among teachers," said Ms. Bone. "On Monday, I saw teachers' self-esteem going up."
But some leaders were concerned that the boycott could provoke a backlash among business interests and the anti-tax movement.
"We're not a militant state," said Superintendent of Public Instruction James R. Moss.
"The walkout had mixed results," he added. "It was succesful in bringing greater public attention to teaching conditions. But it was not successful in securing the funding. There will probably be some reaction against their tactics."
He also noted that the legislature next year will face pressure for funding from competing needs, such as roads and prisons.
"The walkout was perceived as taking place in a vacuum, but there will be competition for that funding," Mr. Moss said.