Doing what is best for our kids should not be a partisan debate. It should be everyone looking to do what’s best for the schoolchildren of Utah. —Dave Thomas, vice chairman of the State School Board
SALT LAKE CITY — After experiencing death and resurrection in legislative committee meetings, a bill that would create partisan elections for the State School Board received its final "no" vote on the House floor Friday.
The bill generated significant interest, with several lawmakers commenting on the volume of emails they received from opponents and supporters alike, and prompted a floor debate on whether party politics would distract educators or lead to greater voter awareness.
"This bill would subject our State School Board elections to the same process that each one of us goes through in our elections," HB228 sponsor Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, told his colleagues in the House. "This process is the process that exposes the candidates to the greatest extent."
But Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, who is sponsoring a bill to enact direct and nonpartisan elections for State School Board members, questioned whether the bill would lead to a slippery slope of the politicization of schools.
"Is the next step to make our local school board leaders partisan?" he asked.
Nielson's bill, HB223, was approved by the House earlier this week and transferred to the Senate. It has the prevailing support of the education community — including the Parent Teacher Association, Utah Education Association and Utah School Boards Association — which also largely opposed Greene's bill.
The State School Board did not take a formal position on either bill, but its members voted to support direct, nonpartisan elections and oppose any bill that would introduce party politics into the selection of board members.
Dave Thomas, vice chairman of the State School Board, said decisions made by the board are not typically of an ideological or partisan nature.
"Doing what is best for our kids should not be a partisan debate," he said. "It should be everyone looking to do what’s best for the schoolchildren of Utah."
Thomas also said he believes the majority of Utah parents support the nonpartisan election of school board members.
"There’s a place for partisan elections," he said. "I just don’t think that place is the State School Board or local school board elections."
But advocacy groups and some lawmakers argue that because of the large size of State School Board districts, the party caucus and convention structure is necessary for voters to become informed about candidates.
Speaking in favor of HB228, Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he has "no idea" if the individuals who currently serve on the State School Board are qualified for their positions.
Anderegg said parents need to know the qualifications of candidates before entering the ballot box, and the only way to do that is through partisan elections.
"I want to know who they are," he said. "I want to know what they stand for. I want to know what their principles are. I want to know what their experience is."
Other lawmakers argued that nonpartisan elections do not preclude voters and candidates from exchanging information and interacting. The comparison was frequently made to city council members, who are elected in nonpartisan municipal elections despite having power to levy taxes, something the State School Board cannot do.
Even more common among opponents was the concern that introducing party politics into school board elections would result in educators who are more subject to a party platform than the needs of students.
"Who do we want these school board members to listen to?" asked Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, a former educator. "Do we want them to listen to parents and children and teachers, or do we want them to make their decisions based on what they get from delegates and lobbyists?"
Laney Benedict, a spokeswoman for the Utah PTA, said the organization is supportive of nonpartisan elections. Benedict said she hopes the debate in the House sends the message to the Senate that the public is supportive of a direct election, as opposed to the current indirect process that sees candidates vetted by a review committee.
Benedict also said she disagrees with the notion that partisan elections are necessary to provide information to voters. She said there are a number of tools available to candidates today looking to inform the public on their background and qualifications.
"I think with technology, every voter in the state has access to candidates," Benedict said. "You can request a face to face."
The bill ultimately fell in a 33-41 vote. HB223, Nielson's nonpartisan alternative, has not yet been debated in the Senate.