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Bid to make school boards partisan clears first legislative hurdle

A bill to reform not only State School Board elections but also local school boards into a partisan process was passed through a Senate committee Tuesday.
A bill to reform not only State School Board elections but also local school boards into a partisan process was passed through a Senate committee Tuesday.

SALT LAKE CITY — A Senate committee gave a favorable recommendation Tuesday to a bill that would reform not only State School Board elections but also those of local school boards into a partisan process.

Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, the sponsor of SB104, said the current school board election process in which candidates are chosen by a committee and appointed by the governor lacks “clarity, transparency and accountability.” Constituents do not feel “empowered” or represented, Jackson said, because candidates do not have enough opportunity to even access the ballots.

“If we go through this process for our legislators, our county commissioners, our governor and our members of Congress, why would we not go through the same process with our school board, which I would argue is more critical than some of the aforementioned offices?” he said.

With a vote of 5-1, the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee recommended the bill for approval.

Reform of Utah's election process for State School Board members is especially needed after a September ruling by a U.S. district court judge deemed the current process unconstitutional, lawmakers said.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, opposed the bill mainly due to its inclusion of local school board reform. A partisan system, she said, may not benefit less-populated districts where candidates are more easily known in their respective areas.

Sens. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, voted in favor the bill but expressed similar concerns about subjecting local school boards to partisan elections, expecting Jackson to address those issues as the bill progresses.

The concept to revamp school board elections is not new. Bills to overhaul State School Board elections have been proposed in past years, only to fail to gain majority support from lawmakers.

Chase Clyde, the Utah Education Association's director of government relations and political action, said while the current system is broken and needs reform, the word "partisan" pushes the association to formally oppose the bill, saying school boards are "the last safe place from party platforms."

"We would hate to see a situation where the decisions being made for our school children are based upon a party platform," Clyde said. "I think we have a lot of people in this state who don't affiliate with a political party."

Jackson said he believes a partisan system would grant better opportunities to parents wishing to properly vet candidates who will best represent their ideals for their children's education.

"The party issue is not an issue in my eyes," he said. "It's about allowing a process that affords parents the opportunities to properly vet the candidates, to be in front of them and have them go through our caucus system in order to make it on the ballot."

While groups including the Libertas Institute and the Eagle Forum support a shift to a partisan election, the Utah Parent Teacher Association stood with the Utah Education Association against looking to a partisan process as a solution.