SALT LAKE CITY — Candidates for the Utah State Board of Education are navigating a new path to office because of changes in policy that included the board in Tuesday's primary election.
That path presents new challenges and opportunities in State School Board elections that have led to more campaign money being spent, more input from voters and interest groups, and likely changes in board membership.
But many see it as a step up from the previous election process for the board, which limited voter input by using a selection committee to narrow candidates for the governor, who then decided which candidates would appear on the general election ballot. That method was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2014.
Having a primary for the board also prevents having all candidates appear in the general election, a possible consequence the judge's decision.
"That would have been, probably by most people's standards, a disaster," said Mark Thomas, state elections director and chief deputy to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. "I do think anytime you can get the people involved in voting and selecting their school board candidates, it can only be a good thing. Overall, people will feel much more comfortable than perhaps the old system."
Initial results ahead of the July 12 canvassing deadline show several likely changes among the eight seats up for election in the 15-member board. The two highest vote-getters in each district will advance to the general election.
Jennifer Graviet gained the lead for District 4 with 33.7 percent of the vote, ahead of incumbent David Thomas, the board's vice chairman, who earned 26.8 percent. Brent Strate earned 14.3 percent, Brad Asay had 13.6 percent, and Elizabeth Carlin received 11.5 percent, according to election results as of Wednesday. District 4 includes areas of Weber and Davis counties.
Among the seven candidates vying to represent District 7, Carol Barlow-Lear was at the front with 27.6 percent of votes. Shelly Teuscher earned 16 percent, incumbent board member Leslie Castle got 14.5 percent, Laurie Williams got 13.9 percent, Dan Tippetts earned 11 percent, Frank Langheinrich received 9.4 percent, and Frank Strickland earned 7.5 percent. That district includes eastern Salt Lake County and Park City.
District 8, which includes Holladay and Murray, saw 37.9 percent of votes go to Janet Cannon. Richard Nelson, who earned 24.8 percent, held a narrow margin over Linda Mariotti at 24.2 percent, and David Sharette earned 13.2 percent. Jennifer Johnson, the district's current board member, did not seek re-election.
Kathleen Reibe held a commanding lead for District 10 at 48.8 percent, ahead of Gary Thompson at 26.1 percent and incumbent board Chairman David Crandall at 25 percent. District 10 includes parts of Draper, Sandy and Cottonwood Heights.
District 11, which includes South Jordan, Riverton and parts of Utah County, gave 40.9 percent of its votes to Lisa Cummins, 33.6 percent to Erin Preston and 25.5 percent to Reed Chadwick. Incumbent board member Jefferson Moss is not seeking re-election to the board, vying instead for a seat in the Utah House of Representatives.
Incumbent board member Dixie Allen held a lead of 44.5 percent for District 12, which includes parts of Summit, Daggett, Wasatch, Duchense and Uintah counties. About 30.4 percent of voters favored Alisa Ellis, and 25.2 percent supported James Moss.
District 15 encompasses parts of Iron and Washington counties. Voters there favored Michelle Boulter at 35.2 percent of the vote, followed by Wesley Christiansen at 24.9 percent. Scott Smith earned 22.7 percent, and Neil Walter trailed with 17.3 percent. Barbara Corry isn't seeking to retain her seat on the board for that district.
District 13, which includes Provo, Spanish Fork and other parts of Utah County, was not included in Tuesday's primary because there are only two candidates — Scott Neilson and incumbent Stan Lockhart.
The results indicate changes to the board, including the possible elimination of board leadership.
"One thing's for sure: I've either won or lost. I just don't know which it is yet," said Crandall, who serves as chairman of the board and was re-elected four years ago after a vote recount. "We'll just be patient and see what the final results bring."
Whatever those results are, the board will be taking on new members in January, he said.
"We will see a pretty significant change on the Board of Education," Crandall said. "We'll see where that takes education in the state. It'll be a significant change regardless of how the general elections turn out at this point."
Barlow-Lear recently retired after working in the Utah State Office of Education. She said she's hopeful for the opportunity to represent District 7 on the board.
"I'm just really excited to work with the other candidates that look like they're leading. Many of them are teachers," Barlow-Lear said. "We know how much work there is to do between now and November."
The board's participation in the primary election produced a significant influx of cash and in-kind donations to various candidates, who reached out to voters across large and densely populated districts.
Leading up to the primary, cash donations for board candidates reached a combined total of $100,000, with spending surpassing $75,000. In-kind donations totalled roughly $86,000, according to candidate disclosures.
Thomas said the previous election method for board members required a "very small" level of campaign funding since most vetting was done prior to a public vote.
"If there is an increase, it's not surprising since these candidates now have to go through the primary election," he said.
The process now allows interest groups to boost their involvement. The Utah Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, provided about $73,000 in in-kind donations, such as digital ads, mail ads, flyers, photo shoots and other resources, according to candidate disclosure records.
Barlow-Lear received more than $15,500 in in-kind donations from the union.
"It wasn't just that UEA helped me with money for my campaign, but they contributed in terms of support and ideas and people," she said.
Tippetts, a businessman and former educator, spent about $28,300, more than any other school board candidate. Most of that was donated by BluePrint Interactive and HG Creative Partners for digital marketing and mail ads.
A new process
Lawmakers this year voted to implement a nonpartisan primary election for the State School Board to replace the former election method of a selection committee and gubernatorial nomination. The change came in a last-minute compromise following years of divisive argument over how to proceed with board elections.
Decades of relying on the selection committee has made the primary election somewhat uncharted territory for school board candidates.
"We just couldn't make any predictions. We didn't know what the percentage of turnout would be. We didn't know how to best campaign," Barlow-Lear said. "It was a brand-new process."
But the new law will implement a partisan process for the next election cycle, and it's unclear how campaign finances, involvement from voters and interest groups, and candidate vetting will evolve. Thomas said other legislative proposals may emerge before then, but lawmakers could also allow the process to play out.
Either way, the issue of State School Board elections has been "one of the most divisive" in the 10 years Thomas has worked in the elections office, he said.
"I would not be surprised if the Legislature decides, 'Let's just see how this works for the next few cycles, and if we need to make changes, we can do that,'" he said.