Much of the recent public discussion about elections in Utah has been focused around the caucus system. But another process for electing community representatives is also underway, and it shuts out the public far more than the caucus system. It is the process for selecting State School Board members.
In the past few weeks, a committee of 12 specially selected citizens in Utah, comprised according to a 2002 legislative statute which allots public education representatives a minority status, met to begin the process for the selection of State Board members. Yes, selection, not election.
Anyone may apply to become a State School Board member from any part of the state. But then, by legislative mandate, the candidates must go through a screening process of this selection committee. In every year since the selection committee has operated, some members have complained about the biased process, the political pressures applied to the selection committee and what appears to some to be block voting with discussion about votes held in secret outside of the meeting. Gov. Gary Herbert has also expressed discomfort with the process.
By law, the selection committee is an open meeting, but time and again, some members of the committee seek to close the voting process. It happened again in recent discussions, but fortunately, the committee determined that the process had to remain open.
The job of the selection committee is to screen the number of candidates down to a minimum of three, from which the governor will choose the final two who will actually appear on your ballot from your area. Hardly a free and public electoral process. As one successful incumbent remarked, "This committee is not my constituents, and I should not have to face them in reporting my qualifications and accounting for my job as a school board member."
Our schools in Utah should never be subject to the whims and power-grabbing that politics often breeds. We need board members who have invested time in schools to lead public education in the state. Understanding, combined with innovation and commitment, are key requirements, not one's political persuasion.
Three from each district have now been selected (four in District 7). After the governor's winnowing of the final two candidates, that leaves only two choices for Utahns to vote on among State School Board candidates. How many choices were taken away from the public?
District 4 (Northwest Davis County), eight candidates filed; two will be able to run. District 7 (Salt Lake City and Summit County), five candidates filed; two will be able to run. District 8 (Murray, Holladay), five candidates filed; two will be able to run. District 10 (Sandy, Draper, Cottonwood Heights), seven candidates filed; two will be able to run. District 11 (Midvale, West SLC valley, Eagle Mountain) ten candidates filed; two will be able to run. District 12 (Orem, Heber and Northeastern Utah), 12 candidates filed; two will be able to run. District 13 (Utah County except Orem), five candidates filed; two will be able to run. District 15 (Washington and Iron Counties), four candidates have filed; two will be able to run.
The field has been severely narrowed through a process that presumes a chosen few know better how to run public schools than do the voting parents and public in each region of the state. This year, two incumbents that the voting public had previously chosen were eliminated by the committee.
Utahns who love their public schools, charter and traditional, ought to demand a change to this skewed selection process and work to restore real elections. These elections should be combined with city and town elections so that regional citizens are making their own vote count for regional representation. It is time to return the non-partisan State School Board election process back to the people of Utah, including primaries where the candidate numbers can be winnowed by voters, not a chosen few with agendas.
Bonnie Palmer was an elected local school board member for 20 years and was president of the Utah School Boards Association in 2001. She has been the chair of Utahns for Public Schools for the past four years.