SALT LAKE CITY — Candidates for the Utah State Board of Education took one step closer to November's ballot Monday, facing questions from a committee tasked with narrowing the candidate pool.
The interviews, held throughout the day Monday and continuing Tuesday, eliminated several individuals from contention after a review of their qualifications and based on their responses on subjects such as funding priorities, charter schools, the Common Core State Standards and the role of the State School Board.
"It would be ideal if these candidates who don’t make it go back to their local districts and try to make a difference there," said Shannon Greer, a member of the nominating and recruiting committee.
Seventy candidates originally filed to run for one of seven seats on the State School Board, though 12 later withdrew from consideration.
Under Utah's oft-criticized election process, the 12-member review committee selects at least three names per seat to advance to the governor, who then picks the final two names to appear on the ballot.
After the first round of interviews Monday, the committee advanced:
Terryl Warner (incumbent), David Clark and Bryce Day in District 1, which includes the northwest corner of the state.
Spencer Stokes, Willard Maughan and Jana Rae Shaw in District 2, which includes Ogden, Weber County and surrounding areas.
Michael Jensen (incumbent), Linda Hansen, Jeffery Meservy and Garrick Hall in District 3, which includes Tooele, West Valley City, Nephi and a large portion of the central-west part of the state.
Dan Griffiths (incumbent), Melissa Johnson, Pat Rusk and Brittney Cummins in District 6, located around West Jordan.
In all cases where an incumbent was seeking re-election, their name was forwarded to the governor.
Griffiths, the incumbent in District 6, said he viewed his service on the board as voluntarism and encouraged the committee to consider other candidates if they could contribute more to the state.
"If you feel like there are others who could contribute better, please choose them," he said.
Candidates were commonly asked how the state should prioritize the limited funding available for public education, with responses including a need for technology in the classroom, investment in STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and compensation and training for Utah's teachers.
"We need to pay teachers what they're worth," Maughan said. "We need to pay them on a level that they will stay and they will do it."
Most of the candidates were supportive of the role that charter schools play in providing options to Utah families.
Shaw said education should be viewed as a business, albeit one with a more emotional inventory.
"What is good for business is competition, and we shouldn't be afraid of that," she said.
Hall was dismissive of the idea that charter schools and traditional schools need to compete to excel. He said charter schools provide a great option to some families, while others are more comfortable in a traditional setting.
"I don't think they have to compete against each other," Hall said. "I think they should complement each other."
On the controversial Common Core State Standards, which define the minimum skills a student should master in math and English, candidates were routinely asked what they would do to help create a positive atmosphere as the state moves forward with implementation.
Some candidates critical of the Common Core were eliminated from consideration, with those who advanced often citing a need for greater transparency and outreach to inform parents and teachers of the benefits of more rigorous, college- and career-ready education benchmarks.
Meservy said school board members should be "visionaries" for education in the state. He said the board needs to look toward the future and invest in initiatives that will move the state toward desired outcomes.
"I don’t think we should change for the sake of change, and I don’t think we should stay the same for the sake of staying the same," Meservy said. "(If we) change the standards every year just because there’s people up in arms about it, we’re never going to get anywhere. We’re going to sit in the mud pile and spin our wheels."
Several candidates spoke of the need to improve relationships between the various education stakeholders in the state. Stokes said there needs to be an end to the battles among charter schools, traditional schools, the Utah Education Association, the Utah State Office of Education and the governor and Legislature.
"Those are not productive. They don’t need to exist," he said. "Everybody has a role in this, in providing a world-class education, and they all provide something."
Nolan Karras, chairman of the 12-member recruiting and nominating committee, said he was looking for candidates willing to commit their time to serving the children, team players and those with unique perspectives.
"I’m looking for some diversity," Karras said. "I’m looking for people who can bring a different point of view and perspective to the board."
He said serving on the committee puts him in a difficult position, having to both recruit candidates and act as an impartial juror when advancing names to the governor.
"I’m uncomfortable being the one that does it," Karras said. "I’d much rather have the public involved and making the decision."
The former state legislator said he's been involved with several school board election formats, and, while the current system is criticized, he's not sure what the best alternative would be.
Karras said committee members try to maintain an open mind about candidates, but he added that the committee ends up performing a more thorough review of candidates than the average voter.
"That makes me uncomfortable because I don’t want to be the kingmaker," he said. "But we are reviewing the resumes, we do interview them and so we’re quite comfortable, I think, that if we advance somebody, they’re certainly worthy to be on the ballot, and they’re certainly going to do something for education. I just hope we end up with a diverse enough group that it adds strength to the board."
The interviews will resume Tuesday morning at the Utah State Capitol complex with candidates from Districts 5 and 9. Because only three candidates filed for the District 14 seat, all three names will be forwarded to the governor for consideration.