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Lawmakers consider changes to State School Board elections

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27 2013 6:32 p.m. MDT

A discussion by lawmakers Tuesday suggests there's a consensus that the governing model of Utah public education needs to be changed, but opinions remain divided on what should take its place.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A discussion by lawmakers Tuesday suggests there's a consensus that the governing model of Utah public education needs to be changed, but opinions remain divided on what should take its place.

Members of the Education Task Force looked at several potential models for oversight of public and higher education in the state, with particular interest toward the manner in which State School Board members are selected.

"The system we have is really because it’s the only thing we could settle on," said Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden. "It’s not the best system by any measure."

Currently, State School Board members are elected through a hybrid process that sees the candidate pool vetted by a recruiting and nomination committee. That committee forwards three candidates for each seat to the governor, who then places two candidates on the ballot.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, spoke of the frustration she feels as a voter being allowed to choose only between the two candidates chosen by the governor. Ruzicka also suggested that because school board members are not directly elected, they are less inclined to listen to Utahns' concerns.

"It’s hard to say we really elect our State School Board when we choose between the governor’s favorites," she said. "It’s an impossible situation, and no one is listening to you. This system must be changed so people can be heard."

Ruzicka spoke in a favor of partisan elections for the State School Board, saying the party nomination and primary process allows for a more structured vetting of candidates and for accountability to delegates.

That position was recently shared by The Sutherland Institute, conservative public policy think tank, which in June released a paper calling for partisan elections for school board members. The institute looked at several potential models for school board selection, such as a nonpartisan election or a governor-appointed board, and found all of them to be superior to the current model.

Others counter that partisan politics should not be introduced into schools and elections should be maintained as nonpartisan similar to municipal races for mayor and city council.

In January, the State School Board considered a motion to formally support two bills that would have created open nonpartisan elections for their positions. The motion received a majority vote but fell short of the eight-vote requirement for board action, and the bills ultimately failed to gain traction in the Legislature.

As part of Tuesday's discussion of education governance, lawmakers were presented with a review of the various governing models around the country. Legislative staff also presented some statistical analysis on how students in those systems performed on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests.

"I think this shows that all states do it differently. Maybe we can learn from them and maybe we can’t," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "We have a lack of accountability, or a lack of connection, between the constituent and the policymaking body that needs to be accountable."

After some discussion on the significance of performance data and the need for further research, Reid suggested that a lot of time has potentially been wasted on debate when almost all the parties involved agree a change is necessary.

"This is not a good system," he said, "and frankly, I don’t care what the data shows. My hope is that we can find a process that will, rather than create division in our education system, we can be more aligned in our education process from the governor all the way down to that student and the parents and those taxpayers."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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