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Should Utah have a partisan State School Board?

SALT LAKE CITY — With the 2015 legislative session past its half way mark, Utah lawmakers are getting closer to bringing the long-debated election system for the Utah State Board of Education out of limbo.

Currently, the Legislature is considering five bills and two joint resolutions that pose unique options for the state's top governing body for public education. Each holds ground in a fundamental debate for lawmakers: What system of selection would make State School Board members most accountable?

"It really comes down to that — what's the best way to vet candidates and make sure they're good solid candidates," said David Crandall, chairman of the State School Board. "That's really the bottom line."

Utah's current system employs a review committee to find candidates who are either rejected or placed on the ballot by the governor. The system was struck down in September after U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that it violates constitutional rights of free speech by giving the governor and the committee "unfettered discretion" in advancing or excluding candidates.

As a result, a new vetting system must be in place by the 2016 election, and the task of finding that system has fallen to the Legislature.

"Clearly, we have to do something," said Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden.

Solutions on the table

So far, SB104 is the only school board election bill to make it out of committee and through the Senate. The bill proposes that the State School Board be selected through a partisan election.

While Waddoups' ruling made no mention of local school boards, the bill would also require school districts with more than 50,000 students to have partisan elections for their school boards. Currently, that includes the Davis, Alpine, Granite and Jordan school districts.

"This piece of legislation attempts to bring some accountability back to the parents as the school board should be accountable to parents," said Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland. "Right now, I'm hard pressed to say that it is."

Jackson's bill passed the Senate on Wednesday in a 19-8 vote, with Democrats opposed. It currently awaits House approval.

Millner is sponsoring two legislative options, both of which were approved by the Senate Education Committee on Friday. SB195 would make the State School Board election partisan in 2016, with a provision to eventually reduce the number of board members from 15 to nine. The bill has no provisions for local school boards.

Millner is also sponsoring SJR5, which would amend the Utah Constitution to allow the governor to appoint State School Board members with confirmation by the Senate. The amendment would be placed on the 2016 ballot and would replace the partisan election system if approved by Utah voters. If voters decide not to endorse the amendment, the election system would remain partisan.

"We're allowing the people to decide what they want to see in place going forward," Millner said.

Millner's bill and resolution both await approval by the Senate.

Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, is sponsoring HB305 and HJR16, which would also make State School Board elections partisan unless voters approve an amendment allowing the governor to appoint board members with Senate approval.

Because McCay's legislation is similar to Millner's, it essentially gives legislators in both the House and the Senate an additional opportunity to debate and vote on the model. HB305 and HJR16 await introduction to the House Education Committee.

Two bills offer solutions that don't call for partisan elections. HB186 would allow an individual to be placed on the ballot as a nonpartisan candidate by filing a declaration of candidacy and obtaining voter signatures from within the candidate's state district as well as his or her resident school district.

The bill, sponsored by House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, would also remove nonvoting members from the State School Board. HB186 currently awaits approval by the House Education Committee.

The other nonpartisan system is outlined in HB297, which would allow local school boards to elect members of the State School Board to represent their district. If vacancies occur before the end of a board member's term, a new board member would be appointed by the governor with approval by the Senate to fill the rest of the term.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, also awaits introduction to the House Education Committee.

If two or more conflicting bills pass both the House and the Senate, the Legislature will convene a conference committee to make a final decision.

Conflicting views

Many legislators have supported a move toward partisan elections in their approval of SB104 and SB195. But a recent UtahPolicy.com poll shows the majority of voters favor a nonpartisan process in electing their State School Board representatives.

The survey conducted this month consisted of more than 600 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percent.

Only 27 percent of voters said they supported a partisan election, while 56 percent said they wanted a nonpartisan election, with only the candidate's name appearing on the ballot. Twelve percent approved of a system where the governor would appoint board members with Senate approval.

The survey only asked about State School Board elections, but much of the same concerns translate into how some local school board elections would change.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, voted in favor of Jackson's partisan election bill. But he said many of his constituents in Davis County have questioned whether partisan elections are necessary on the local level.

"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."

Connie Anderson, vice president of the Granite School District Board of Education, said partisan elections would give fewer incentives for candidates to connect with their constituents individually.

"I think it changes the focus of what we're doing to have to be responsible to delegates rather than parents. I just don't think it's a positive for the kids," Anderson said, adding that candidates shouldn't be "beholden to a political party."

John Burton, president of the Alpine School District Board of Education, said most local school board candidates are well known by their constituents, and that partisan elections would create a vacuum for patrons who aren't affiliated with a political party.

"The answer is, it's really not good for anybody," Burton said. "The system we have right now is the right system, and it keeps the board members in touch with their local constituents."

One reason some lawmakers oppose the partisan system for school board elections is because of the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits federal employees or people who work for federally funded agencies from running in partisan races.

If any of the bills proposing partisan elections were to become law, thousands of Utahns could be excluded from school board positions, 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."

But a concern with the current system is that too many voters are unfamiliar with school board candidates and that they end up voting for whichever name appears first on the ballot. In a partisan election, however, voters would at least know which political party the candidates are from.

"The opposition would say that this tries to politicize the process. I say to you, 'No, it does not,'" Jackson said. "What this legislation does is it allows the citizens and parents and those invested in the education of our young people to properly vet the candidates through our beloved caucus system. And the person who's running for that office should reflect the values of that community."

The Utah State Board of Education has not taken an official position on any legislation dealing with school board elections. But the board's chairman said he hopes the debate will encourage voters to be more informed on who their elected representatives are.

"I do think that would be one of the goals coming out of this, that people will be more engaged in the process and realize that it does make a difference on the state board," Crandall said.

Appointing candidates

A less hearty debate surrounds the idea of moving to an appointed school board system. Utah is one of only 10 states that elect their State School Board members. In 30 other states, board members are appointed by different governing bodies.

Emily Boburg, a parent, said it's hard to give her voice an equal share with business and political leaders, and that making the board an appointed office wouldn't improve accountability to families.

"The lobbyists, the business community, the political community have great influence on our board, and as a parent, it's very difficult to get (my) voice heard as it is," Boburg said. "And by having the governor have (more) control over who's on that board, I'm afraid it's going to make it even more difficult."

Some educational systems in Utah already use an appointment model. In the Utah State Board of Regents, which governs higher education in the state, 16 of the 19 members are appointed by the governor.

Millner said the system allows for a better connection between the governor's office, the Legislature and higher education leaders. Such a system could also be beneficial for public education, she said.

"I'd like to see us connect the decision-making at the top in a way that allows us to think about the future, to establish some accountability standards for our schools that we all agree to, both the board and the Legislature and the governor," Millner said. "And then, we really empower our local school boards and move to local control."

JoDee Sundberg, vice president of the Alpine School District Board of Education, says the Board of Regents and the State School Board operate quite differently, and it's unclear whether the same benefits from an appointment system would apply to both boards. She said all the options for school board selection should be put to a public vote.

"I think the best thing to do is to put it all on the ballot and let people vote whether they would want partisan races, a governor-selected state board or nonpartisan (elections)," Sundberg said.

Millner expressed confidence in the Legislature being able to reach an agreement through continued debate and input from educators and parents.

"In Utah, we know how to work together," Millner said. "And there's no higher priority than families and children in our state. Let's work to try to come together and do what's good for our children and our families in the state."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen