SALT LAKE CITY — A perennial question in Utah public education is how to best fill the seats of the State School Board.
While there is wide agreement that the current system needs to be changed, determining exactly what type of system should take its place continues to be a point of division among lawmakers, educators, activists and potential candidates.
But in a new paper, the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank, recommends that in order to maintain the public trust, Utah needs to move toward direct partisan elections for school board members.
"We looked at the various proposals for State School Board reform, which included nonpartisan elections, partisan elections, and a governor-appointed school board," said Derek Monson, Sutherland's director of public policy. "The partisan election system has the best balance of transparency, accountability and clarity."
Currently, State School Board members are selected through a process in which the candidate pool is narrowed down to three names per seat by a nominating and selecting committee. Based on the committee recommendations, the governor then selects two names to place on the ballot.
The system has been criticized for taking power out of the hands of voters and for occasionally removing incumbent board members from office with no input from their constituents.
In the Sutherland Institute's review, all of the proposed reforms were deemed to be superior to the current selection process.
"Utah’s current system for selecting the state board of education offers a unique combination of over-complication, illogic, a lack of public scrutiny, and unaccountability to voters," the paper states. "In many ways it seems designed to undermine public trust in the integrity of the system by institutionalizing back-room decision-making by business interests and education bureaucrats in deciding who gets the privilege of running for the State School Board."
The Sutherland Institute describes itself as a conservative public policy think tank committed to shaping Utah's laws based on governing principles like limited government, free markets and religion as the moral compass of human progress. During the most recent legislative session, the group supported a failed bill that would have created online sex education resources for Utah parents and opposed a statewide anti-discrimination law making it illegal to fire someone based on sexual orientation.
The institute also started a petition earlier this year calling on Utah to withdraw its support of the Sundance Film Festival, which annually contributes tens of millions of dollars to the state's economy, out of concern that the festival's lineup of films contains objectionable material.
State School Board member Tami Pyfer said the current process of a central selection committee makes for a board that is less representative of local constituencies and also raises issues about special interests and influence.
She said in most discussions on the subject, board members have expressed their support for maintaining a nonpartisan election process, either through direct election or through a return to regional selection committees.
"That was certainly better than it is now," Pyfer said of the old system, in which a committee in each district would vet candidates for the ballot. "I think everyone on the board can agree that the current system is broken."
During the most recent Legislative session, two bills were sponsored by members of the House to eliminate the role of the state selection committee and the governor in State School Board elections. The bills would have established direct, non-partisan election for school board members, with the key difference between them being whether the elections fell on even- or odd-numbered years.
Neither bill gained traction in the House and both failed to earn a formal recommendation from the State School Board due to a provision in the board's rules that requires eight votes even after a simple majority is reached.
"In every discussion I've been in, we have not been supportive of partisan elections," Pyfer said of the board's attitude toward the issue. "We just feel like public education should not be a partisan issue."
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored one of those bills, said with partisan politics there is a concern that candidates would be pressured to take a public position on noneducation issues like immigration or marriage equality in an effort to beef up their party credentials.
"I’m opposed to partisan elections of school board members," she said. "I think it would be a step in the wrong direction."
But Monson said including the school board races in the state's partisan contests would elevate the public's awareness of the candidates and issues and give voters more chances to study the best course of action. Nonpartisan elections, he said, typically do not reach the same level of scrutiny as contests where one party's candidate is pitted against another's.
He said that because nonpartisan candidates are not included in party nominating procedures, candidates do not typically have as many opportunities to interact with delegates or to make their positions known.
"These kinds of nonpartisan elections kind of float under the radar," he said. "Most of the time people don’t even know who is running."
Monson acknowledged that there are valid concerns with the use of a partisan election system. He said beyond the negative connotation associated with partisan politics, there is also the potential that, with the state's political realities being what they are, the board would be limited to a single ideological slant or party platform.
"There is a potentially legitimate concern about being a one-sided school board," he said. "It’s the dynamics of the state, and I don’t know how you get around that."
But Monson said that concern disregards the amount of varying opinions and autonomy within a single party. He also said some of those concerns could be mitigated by creating a hybrid school board, in which some members are chosen through the electoral process with others being appointed in some manner by the governor or a committee.
He said the ultimate goal in reforming the school board should be maintaining the public trust and maximizing transparency, accountability and clarity. The current system can be improved in many ways, he said, but the greatest gains would be made in opening up the process to direct partisan elections.
"There’s consensus that nobody really likes the current system," he said. "But we can’t move forward and it’s probably because we haven’t come up with the language on how to move forward."
Pyfer said the more closely the school board can approach a representative form of government, in which elected officials are chosen by and are accountable to their constituents, the better.
"I think that’s a better form of government and I think that’s better for the state school board as well," she said.