Proposal to create direct, nonpartisan State School Board elections clears committee

Published: Monday, Feb. 24 2014 11:41 p.m. MST

Updated: Monday, Feb. 24 2014 11:41 p.m. MST

Members of the House Education Committee considered two contradictory bills designed to reform the State School Board election process.

August Miller, Deseret Morning News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Partisan or nonpartisan?

That was the question before members of the House Education Committee on Monday as they debated contradictory bills that seek to create a direct election process for State School Board members.

The committee ultimately voted 9-3 to advance Rep. Jim Nielson's bill, HB223, creating nonpartisan elections to the full House.

But HB228, which calls for partisan school board elections and is sponsored by Pleasant Grove Republican Rep. Brian Green, was defeated in a 6-7 vote and failed to clear the committee.

Supporters of nonpartisan elections — including the Utah Parent Teacher Association, Utah Education Association and State Board of Education — argue that injecting party politics into the State School Board would make education officials more responsive to the wishes of delegates than the needs of Utah's parents and children.

They also warned that candidates would be forced to take positions on non-education issues, such as same-sex marriage or immigration, to prove their party bona fides and survive the caucus and convention process.

"I do stand firm with the position that people who run for these offices should be focusing on education policy only, and if they run through a party process, I’m afraid they’ll get sidetracked," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City.

Supporters of partisan elections — including the Utah Eagle Forum, Sutherland Institute and Libertas Institute — argue that the size of school board districts make it difficult for voters to make an informed choice without the structure and organization of the party process.

"When you have nonpartisan and it’s just an open election, you get a lot of candidates, a lot of confusion, and it’s hard for the average person to sort it out," said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum.

But while there is disagreement on the issue of whether elections should be partisan, lawmakers, educators and advocacy groups are largely in consensus that the current system needs to change.

"To me, the major concern is eliminating the governor’s nominating commission," Nielson said. "That to me is the biggest wrong here."

Currently, State School Board members are selected through a process in which candidates are vetted by a review committee appointed by the governor. That review committee narrows the field of candidates down to three names per school board district, which are then given to the governor who selects the two names that will be placed on the ballot.

The selection process has been criticized for removing incumbent board members without the input of their constituents and for standing in the way of open debate and diversity among the state's top education positions.

While the State School Board has not taken a position on any individual bill related to the election of members, the board voted earlier this month to support direct, nonpartisan elections and oppose any bill that would result in partisan elections.

But other groups, particularly conservative advocacy organizations, have pushed for the State School Board to be included among the state offices decided through party candidate selection.

"It seems to me the voice of the people is most accurately reflected through partisan elections," Greene said.

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