School board won't request veto of school grading bill, but members wary of legislation

Published: Wednesday, March 20 2013 6:20 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The State School Board will not ask the governor to veto a controversial bill that changes the way school performance grades are calculated.

That decision came after nearly two hours of debate Wednesday, during which board members expressed confusion and frustration about the options available to them and the rushed political process that saw a bill pass on the last day of legislative debate after 11th-hour revision.

At issue is SB271, a bill that amends the state's school grading law, which was passed in 2011.

Part of the confusion stems from the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System, a school evaluation system that has been developed by the Utah State Office of Education over the past two years but does not, in its current form, comply fully with the law passed in 2011. Rather than propose legislation to put state code in line with the system, Rep. Greg Hughes sponsored SB271, which would enact a system different from both current law and current practice by education officials.

That bill was largely opposed by education stakeholders in the state including the State School Board, which took the position that the bill was unnecessary, leading to a third substitute of the bill that was presented to and passed by lawmakers on the final day of debate. The revised and final version of the bill similarly makes statutory changes to the way in which school performance grades are calculated and assigned, but it does so in a way that is more palatable to educators.

But because the Utah Comprehensive Accountability System was approved by the U.S. Department of Education as part of Utah's waiver from No Child Left Behind, that accountability system will continue in tandem to the one established by SB271 for the time being.

"At least for a period of time, I don't see how we can't have two systems," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove.

During Wednesday's school board meeting, board members met with Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, as they attempted to understand and weigh the differences between current statute, the original bill, the revised bill and the accountability system.

At several instances, the question of SB271 and whether there should be a veto was categorized as a no-win scenario or a choice between the lesser of evils.

"I just find it so frustrating that we find ourselves in this situation," said board member Leslie Castle. "This is the healthiest horse in the glue factory, that’s how I feel about this bill."

Hall described the confusion that took place on the House floor the morning of the debate. He said lawmakers received conflicting emails of both support and opposition from members of the education community as close as nine minutes before the vote. He also said several lawmakers have expressed to him that they would have opposed the bill if they adequately understood that it would create two accountability systems.

The bill ultimately passed the House by a narrow 38-36 vote. Later that day it passed the Senate 18-8.

"It is unfortunate that there was confusion on the floor," Hall said. "I was a little disappointed with how it all went down." 

Christine Kearl, education adviser for the Utah Governor's Office, said confusion on the bill also extends to the voting public. She said there has been "tremendous" pressure from the public to veto the bill, though she added that many, if not most of the individuals who have contacted the office do not realize the bill was revised on the final day of the session.

"It’s almost like the sex ed bill from the last session," she said, referring to HB363 which was vetoed by the governor last year. "It’s a very hot topic in our office."

The vote taken by board members was whether to request a veto, but it also included an accompanying request that the bill be placed by the governor on the agenda for a special session of the Legislature. Board member Kim Burningham made the motion and said a special session would buy time for lawmakers and educators to share their concerns and work toward more ideal legislation.

"History tells us there will be a special session," he said. "There has been almost every time."

But Niederhauser warned that there were no guarantees a special session would be called or that the result would be an improvement to SB271. He also said that requesting a veto would potentially thrust political negativity on the governor.

"That’s the risk I see you taking with this motion," he said. "I can’t predict what would happen in a special session."

Niederhauser encouraged board members to not request a veto, saying that it would be better to allow SB271 to pass and then work with lawmakers to address whatever concern result from its implementation.

"If this is extreme mayhem then we’ll work together to fix it," he said.

The motion to request a veto ultimately failed in an evenly split 5-5 vote.

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com

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