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Lawmakers narrow selection of school board election bills

Three bills were held in committee and three others were allowed to move to the House floor following a lengthy debate about State School Board elections among lawmakers, educators and members of the public Thursday.
Three bills were held in committee and three others were allowed to move to the House floor following a lengthy debate about State School Board elections among lawmakers, educators and members of the public Thursday.
Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The list of alternatives for vetting Utah State School Board candidates is narrowing.

Three bills were held in committee and three others were allowed to move to the House floor following a lengthy debate among lawmakers, educators and members of the public Thursday.

The fundamental question remains the same as it has been: Should Utah have a partisan school board?

What goes to the House is a combination of legislation. SB104, sponsored by Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, has already passed the Senate. Now amended, the bill would make the State School Board elections partisan and allow local school boards to choose whether to have partisan elections.

HB186, sponsored by House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, would allow State School Board candidates to run in a direct nonpartisan election, requiring them to gather voter signatures from both the state district and the local school district where they reside. The bill proposes to increase the salary for board members and remove nonvoting members.

The House Education Committee also approved HJR16, sponsored by Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, which would put to public vote an amendment to allow the governor, with Senate approval, to appoint members of the State School Board and the state superintendent of public instruction. The resolution would also reduce the number of board members from 15 to nine.

Two additional bills for partisan and nonpartisan election, as well as a bill proposing that State School Board candidates be elected by members of local school boards, were not recommended by the committee. However, these and other bills may still play a part in how the Legislature decides on a final solution.

"As we've heard several of these bills, I think ultimately what we're going to end up with is a combination," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns. "I think we're going to pull parts and pieces out of different bills and put them into one that will ultimately be the final bill."

The Legislature was tasked with finding a new method of vetting State School Board candidates after U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled the current system is unconstitutional. The ruling states the current method gives "unfettered discretion" to the governor and a candidate review committee in rejecting or advancing candidates.

Educators on both sides of the partisan debate lined up to voice their views to members of the House Education Committee. Heather Gardner, a schoolteacher in Bountiful, ran last year for a position on the State School Board but was denied a spot on the ballot. She said the current nonpartisan system has made it difficult to connect with constituents in such a large district.

"The current system is broken," Gardner said. "There was no way for me as a State School Board candidate to vet myself to each and every person in my district because of how many people were in my district. … I am for partisan elections. I believe that candidates need to be properly vetted."

Stan Rasmussen, spokesman for the Sutherland Institute, said the partisan process would bring clarity to parents and heightened attention to the election of school board members. He said in small cities, nonpartisan elections would be more feasible. But in a statewide election, partisan elections would be the best way to help the largest number of people become familiar with candidates.

"We think this is less about being partisan and more about vetting, more about achieving familiarity and scrutiny for voters, which the partisan election process does," Rasmussen said.

Mary Nielson is vice president of the Juab Board of Education as well as a political party delegate. She said the process of becoming a delegate did not require getting to know constituents, as becoming a State School Board member should. Having nonpartisan elections would encourage candidates to be more accountable to constituents, she said.

"I think we have to be very careful about saying that you become vetted because you have gone through your caucus system. You become vetted when you go and meet the people that are in your voting district," Nielson said. "I believe as a school board member, I was vetted. As a state delegate, I was not."

JoDee Sundberg, vice president of the Alpine School District Board of Education, said a partisan election for the State School Board would alienate non-Republican voters in Utah. She said she favored Gibson's bill proposing nonpartisan elections and collecting signatures from constituents.

"I think that is a really good idea to have them come into the communities that they represent," Sundberg said.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said she has sponsored two unsuccessful bills in the past that propose nonpartisan elections. She also spoke in favor of Gibson's bill, that it would tie candidates to constituents, not a political party.

"This is a very divisive issue," Moss said. "The public has weighed in every time, and we really hear a split from the voices in terms of direct nonpartisan or partisan."

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, is also sponsoring legislation that wasn't discussed by the House Education Committee on Thursday. SB195, which proposes partisan State School Board elections, and SJR5, which would put to public vote an amendment for a governor-appointed State School Board, have both passed the Senate Education Committee and await action in the full Senate.

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