By Ray Parker
| The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published 43 minutes ago • Updated 1 minute ago
Budget discussions got so contentious Tuesday night, one Salt Lake City School District board member left the meeting.
Tiffany Sandberg asked to be excused after board member Michael Clara continued to ask questions about the budget, yet none of the other members seemed to understand his point.
Clara said he wants greater transparency involving district business, especially as he considers a vote on whether to increase taxes.
The disagreement during Tuesday’s board meeting was the latest in a series of criticisms Clara has lodged since joining the board in January.
Clara has a blog titled “Taxation Without Representation” that criticizes the district’s actions in creating a budget for the 2013-2014 school year, especially when administrators met with no more than three board members, thereby not requiring that the meeting be open to the public.
District officials have proposed a property tax increase, which would require homeowners to pay $12.65 more annually per $100,000 of home valuation.
Even though school districts received a 2 percent boost to per-student funding in the recent legislative session, Salt Lake City School District must divert almost all of that money toward increasing retirement costs.
District officials said the property-tax increase would generate $3.6 million, covering $1.9 million needed to support current academic programs; $1.2 million for state retirement and cost-of-living increases for employees; and $450,000 to cover federal budget cutbacks.
Clara said he thinks the seven-member school board should have met as a whole, in a public meeting, to parse over the budget, perhaps coming up with alternatives to increasing taxes.
“I’m questioning the fact that we have not deliberated on this,” Clara said Tuesday in an interview. “We never, ever got to talk about alternatives [to increasing taxes].”
District spokesman Jason Olsen said the complaint is false.
“Mr. Clara’s contentions are completely without merit,” Olsen wrote in an email. “The small-group meetings with board members in no way deprive the public of their right to review and comment on the district budget.
“The small-group meetings with board members are optional and are designed to give board members a deeper understanding of the budget development process and answer any questions they may have,” Olsen wrote.
Olsen added that the board started discussing the upcoming budget in March.
In the Taxation Without Representation blog, Clara posted snippets from the May 7 board meeting, when Janet Roberts, district business administrator, said the proposed budget resulted from the board’s small groups, which supported the property tax increase.
Clara disagreed and said the group he was in neither discussed increasing property taxes, nor went over funding alternatives.
On Tuesday, during the budget discussion, board member Rosemary Emery asked why the career and technical education teachers outnumber the number of core subject teachers in high schools. At East High School, for example, she said there are 13 CTE teachers, 11 English, 11 math and 10 science. Emery said the CTE program should be looked into to save money.
Board President Kristi Swett said the board would review the CTE program in the future.
Since he started in January, Clara has created a brouhaha at the district, filing multiple civil-rights complaints with federal officials and documenting his criticisms on his website, Michaelclara.com.
The past few months, Clara has clashed with board members over several issues. Here’s an exchange from the May 7 board meeting, when members discussed the difference between federal funds and approving the upcoming budget.
Member Douglas Nelson said: “You can approve the budget but allege graft, or theft, but that’s different, than saying as a representative of the taxpayers, this is how we want the money spent.”
Clara replied: “I don’t see the difference.”
Nelson: “Well, you have to see the difference if you’re on the board of education.”
Nelson: “Only if you want to be a good board member, do you need to see the difference.”
Heather Bennett, board vice president, said: “Let’s move on.”
The proposed 2013-14 budget can be seen on the district website:slcschools.org/departments/budgeting/documents/1314-budget.pdf.
On June 4, the school board is expected to vote on the 2013-14 district budget, including increasing property taxes.