Jordan Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Delegates to this weekend's state Republican Party convention will be asked to weigh in on Utah's school board election process, a contentious issue that has bedeviled educators and lawmakers for years.
A resolution sponsored by Highland Republican Oak Norton encourages lawmakers affiliated with the Utah Republican Party to enact and support legislation making state and local school board members subject to direct, partisan elections.
"We have, right now, a broken election system for State School Board members and not a very good one for local districts," Norton said.
Currently, State School Board members are elected through an indirect process that sees candidates vetted by a recruiting committee, which forwards three names per seat to the governor. The governor then selects two names to appear on the ballot.
The process has been widely criticized for discouraging participation and limiting accountability. Some also believe selection by the committee has led to a controlled, homogenous agenda among board members by filtering out candidates with opposing views.
During the most recent legislative session, three bills were sponsored targeting the State School Board election process. All three failed, but a proposal to create a direct, nonpartisan election passed the House before being defeated by a single vote during its Senate committee hearing.
Supporters of nonpartisan elections — including sitting members of the State School Board — similarly have concerns with the current candidate selection process. But they also caution against introducing partisan politics into the classroom.
"The best school board members are the ones that put children first, not politics," said Patti Harrington, associate executive director of the Utah School Boards Association. "That should be first and foremost, not any partisan affiliation."
The resolution makes the assertion that "most school board members seem to welcome federal control of education." It also points to Texas as an exemplar due to partisan school officials there rejecting the Common Core State Standards, a series of benchmarks adopted by all but six states outlining the minimum skills a students is expected to master in each grade.
During an interview with the Deseret News, Norton again cited the Common Core as a negative effect of Utah's school board election process, suggesting that anti-Core candidates have been unfairly blocked from advancement by the governor's review committee.
"Over half our state budget goes to education," he said, "and without being able to get representation on the board, I feel that’s a fairly big problem."
But Norton said the resolution isn't meant to be a single-issue campaign to end Utah's involvement with the Common Core or a backdoor strategy to elect anti-Core candidates.
He said the resolution is intended to provide a greater degree of representation through the caucus and convention process, which has contributed to Utah's reputation as one of the best managed states in the nation.
"It’s not about partisanship," Norton said. "It’s about finding people whose principles are in line with yours and then saying, 'I believe this person is the best for the job.'"
Too many voters, he said, are indifferent or ignorant regarding school board elections, and the party structure is necessary to adequately vet candidates.
"In general, the public doesn’t have a clue when they go into the voting booth who’s running for state or local school board," Norton said. "They show up and they see some names on there, and they don’t know anything about those people at all and so they take a guess."
Harrington objected to the categorization that school board members are friendly to federal intrusion.
She said the state receives federal funding in a number of areas, such as transportation, and to criticize educators for accepting federal dollars suggests a misunderstanding of the economic realities facing Utah's schools.
"The federal government is not our enemy," Harrington said. "They are our partner, and like all good partners, we have to respect one another’s authority and jurisdiction. To the degree that the federal government steps on the state’s toes, I’m one of those that supports state’s rights enormously."
But Norton reiterated that partnership with the federal government leads to a loss of state sovereignty. He said one reason it was important to require candidates to be vetted by convention delegates was to "eliminate people with weak principles" who might compromise on community values.
"What the board members and the State Office (of Education) don’t understand or don’t seem to understand is that every federal dollar we get comes with strings that override local control," he said.
Harrington said the Utah School Boards Association has encouraging its members to contact delegates and urge their opposition toward the resolution. A spokesman for the Utah Education Association also said the organization remains opposed to making school board elections partisan.
"The nature of politics is such that it tends to introduce contention," Harrington said. "We don’t need that on our schools. We need teachers free from worry of whether they are party affiliates and whether they support the board in that respect."
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