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House approves direct, nonpartisan election of State School Board

Published: Wednesday, March 5 2014 9:01 p.m. MST

Members of the Utah House on Wednesday voted in favor of a bill creating direct and nonpartisan elections for members of the State School Board. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Members of the Utah House on Wednesday voted in favor of a bill creating direct and nonpartisan elections for members of the State School Board. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A widely disliked and frequently criticized aspect of State School Board elections may be facing its final days.

The Utah House, with effectively no debate, voted 57-15 Wednesday to eliminate a candidate review and selection committee and instead set up direct, nonpartisan elections for board members.

HB223, which has been sponsored in various forms over the years but has gained little traction in the Legislature, generated lively debate in a House committee meeting on the pros and cons of a partisan or nonpartisan school board election.

But in presenting the bill Wednesday, sponsor Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, suggested that debate be held until a later time and that lawmakers act to end what has become a "quite universally hated" election process.

"This bill today is our first and best opportunity to get rid of the governor’s nominating commission," Nielson said.

Currently, board members are elected through an indirect process that sees candidates vetted by a committee appointed by the governor. That committee forwards three candidates per seat to the governor, who then places two of those three names on the ballot to face voters.

The process has generated perennial groans from the education community for both blocking access to the ballot and in some instances removing an incumbent from the board without the input of their constituents.

"That qualifies as an election, I suppose, but I don’t think it meets the intent of our constitution," Nielson said.

HB223 will now go before the Senate for consideration. The House also has yet to consider a second bill, HB228, which would create direct elections of school board members with the partisan structure of the party nomination process.

That bill is largely opposed by the education community, with groups expressing concern that partisan elections would lead to non-education issues creeping into campaigns and making board members more subject to party leaders and delegates than the needs of children and their parents.

The House also approved HB236, sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, which would bar lobbyists from serving on the candidate review committee — if both bills to terminate that committee fail — and require that incumbents seeking re-election be advanced for the governor's consideration.

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