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Partisan school board election bill gets final OK from Senate

The Utah Senate gave its final approval Wednesday of a bill that lawmakers hope will solve the debate of clarity, accountability and transparency in school board elections.
The Utah Senate gave its final approval Wednesday of a bill that lawmakers hope will solve the debate of clarity, accountability and transparency in school board elections.
Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate gave its final approval Wednesday of a bill that lawmakers hope will solve the debate of clarity, accountability and transparency in school board elections.

While lawmakers agree on the potential benefits of changing the way voters elect their representatives on the State School Board, several were opposed to the idea of making local school board elections partisan as well, a provision under SB104.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who voted in favor of the bill, said making local school board elections partisan would restrict community participation in the Davis School District, which is in his legislative district.

"Our concern is that by going to a partisan election in that district, we limit good, qualified candidates," Stevenson said. "I'm on board for trying to make sure we have partisan elections in the State School Board. I think that makes a lot of sense. But I have a lot of constituents that are certainly concerned about going to a partisan election in our local board."

Federal law also has implications for the potential policy. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees and those employed by federally funded agencies to run in partisan elections. If SB104 were to become law, thousands of Utahns who fall into those categories would not be allowed to run in partisan elections for the state or local school boards, according to Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.

"I have a lot of concerns with this," Escamilla said. "We should not be imposing that on them."

Originally, the bill would have required districts with 3,000 students or more to hold partisan elections. But the Senate approved an amendment Wednesday that raises the minimum number to 50,000 students.

The four "mega districts" include Davis, Alpine, Granite and Jordan, which would be required to hold partisan vetting for their school boards, said bill sponsor Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland.

The current system for electing State School Board members asks a committee to select candidates, who are then appointed by the governor to be placed on the ballot. But that method was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups last year because it lacked adequate transparency.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said although the ruling only applied to the State School Board, the same lack of transparency is present in local school board elections.

"Make no mistake, these elections are partisan now. But they are partisan behind closed doors," Thatcher said. "This (bill) will give greater scrutiny to those candidates who are running for school board" positions.

The bill passed in a 19-8 vote, with Democrats opposed. It now awaits House approval.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen