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An undemocratic process

Published: Monday, Aug. 2 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

With the exception of the elected Utah State Board of Education, no other political office in Utah requires candidates to pass muster with the governor in order to earn a spot on the statewide ballot.

Candidates for all other offices must be registered voters, meet certain residency and age requirements and have sufficient funds for the filing fees. Then the public decides. If there are more than two candidates for a particular seat, the field is reduced to two in a primary election.

That's not the case for the state school board. As the law is now written, a nominating committee of 12 people, evenly split between business and education interests, interviews the candidates and sends three or more names per district to the governor for consideration. The governor then selects two candidates for the ballot.

More than a decade ago, the stated rationale for preselecting the contenders was to ensure "quality" candidates ran for the state school board. It was a polite way to say that the state board, the state superintendent and the State Office of Education shouldn't have to deal with school board members whose philosophies were far flung from the mainstream.

This presumes that voters would elect extremists. It further supposes that a school board member with fanatical views could persuade more mainstream thinkers to follow along. If the Utah Legislature is any guide, off-the-wall proposals might capture a lot of public attention, but the legislative process helps to ensure that truly bizarre proposals do not pass. If they do, they can be vetoed by the governor.

In the 2003 Legislature, the membership of the state school board nominating committee was split evenly between education and business interests because of an ongoing perception that the previous nomination process favored the education establishment.

Under intense deadline pressure and in the midst of vacation schedules, more business representatives turned out to the recent nominating meeting than education representatives. The outcome was that neither a well-regarded incumbent state school board member nor the former president of the National School Boards Association was among the names forwarded to the governor.

Some say school choice and reform politics came into play. That's a possibility, but if education representatives didn't attend the meeting, it's difficult to assign blame to other representatives who were just doing their jobs.

The larger problem is a selection process that gives the governor more power than the electorate. It's undemocratic.

One risk in changing the process is that many voters have no idea who their state school board representative is, let alone the role of the state school board.

It's probably best that the state school board does not become overly political or that state school board candidates have to raise a lot of campaign cash to earn name recognition. But if the end result of letting the electorate decide is that voters become more aware of the function of the state school board and the candidates, that would be a boon to the process. People would cast informed votes, which would be a vast improvement over the current process.

The Legislature should return this process to the people so the elected state school board is selected by Utahns, not a handpicked committee of special interests or a governor who may select candidates who will pose the least resistance to his or her education agenda.

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