SALT LAKE CITY — A constitutional amendment that either increases consistency and balance in Utah's educational system or undermines the authority of elected State School Board members advanced Wednesday out of committee.
SJR5, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, would amend the Utah Constitution to require the school board's selection of the state superintendent of public instruction to be approved by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
The resolution requires a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate in order to pass the Legislature and would be subject to ratification by Utah voters in a general election.
Reid said his bill is intended to make the selection of a state superintendent consistent with the selection of a state commissioner of higher education. That position is approved and confirmed by the governor and Legislature after being selected by the Board of Regents. He believes the general public would be "alarmed, surprised and shocked" to learn that the governor has no authority over public education in the state.
"They're still in charge of appointment," Reid said of the State School Board. "That doesn't change."
But the governor does select the two candidates who appear on the ballot for each seat on the State School Board, a provision that board member Jennifer Johnson said amounts to "an incredible amount of power." Through the candidate selection process, the governor has the ability to single-handedly bar an incumbent board member from seeking re-election.
If given the authority to approve a new state superintendent, Johnson said, the governor would be able to effectively veto the selection of state superintendent, which is made by board members duly elected by voters in the state and constitutionally charged with the general management and supervision of public education.
She also questioned why the resolution needed to be addressed in the current legislative session without further discussion, unless the intent was personally motivated as a way to fire newly appointed Superintendent Martell Menlove.
Menlove's selection in October drew criticism from four conservative lawmakers. A statement released at the time by Sens. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, and Reps. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Dan McKay, R-Riverton, described the process of replacing outgoing Superintendent Larry Shumway as rushed and superficial. They also suggested that the board had already made its decision and was merely going through the motions of holding a search for candidates.
"We believe this decision should not be expedited," the lawmakers wrote. "It should not be predetermined. It should be meticulous, open, inclusive and thorough."
On the subject of consistency between public and higher education, Deon Turley, education commissioner for the Utah Parent Teacher Association, said there is a major difference between the State School Board and the Board of Regents in that regents do not hold elected office.
"The regents are not elected by the people, but the state board members are elected by the people in a nonpartisan fashion," she said. "We uphold their responsibility and their authority."
Turley's testimony drew a lengthy round of questioning from committee members, particularly Stephenson and Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, which was described as "bullying" on Twitter by Tami Pyfer, a member of the State School Board.
Stephenson questioned whether the PTA's opposition to SJR5 was indicative of parents in the state, saying he had spoken with individual members of school PTA groups who supported the resolution. That led to questions from both senators about the manner in which the Utah PTA establishes a position on bills, the number of PTA members who are allowed to cast votes for those positions, and the breakdown of the particular vote for SJR5.
Stepping in to answer the questions, Gainell Rogers, Utah PTA president, said approximately 2,000 PTA members attended the most recent convention where the vote was taken, though all PTA members were invited to do so. She said the vote in opposition of SJR5 represented roughly 10 percent of the total PTA membership, which she compared to the low voter turnout in elections for state lawmakers.
"Every member is encouraged to come, just as they are in the state of Utah to vote for you," Rogers said.
Debra Roberts, chairwoman of the State School Board, said amendments to the state constitution represent more serious changes than modifications to state statute, and as such require a higher degree of solemnity, consideration and need.
Roberts said amendments should represent good policy regardless of present situations and rhetorically asked committee members if they would still support the resolution if Utah was led by a Democratic governor.
She also said that giving appointment and confirmation power to the governor and Senate increased the likelihood that the "pollution of politics" would enter the public education system.
"This amendment seems to fit the old saying of a solution in search of a problem," she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, who cast the lone vote in opposition to the resolution and questioned why the constitutional amendment was necessary.
"I'm trying to understand what problem we're trying to solve here," Jones said.
The resolution ultimately advanced out of the committee with a 4-1 vote. Prior to the vote, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, took time to publicly state that he felt the issue warranted a thorough debate on the Senate floor and would ultimately be up to the people of Utah to decide in November's general election.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company