The Utah State School Board found itself in the position of having to defend its existence recently as it met with legislative leadership.

A meeting called primarily to discuss legislative issues expected to affect public education took a turn when Rep. David M. Adams, R-San Juan, told board members that soon - if not this legislative session, then in a subsequent one - the necessity of having the state board would be challenged.Adams asked for board input regarding "the nature of your existence."

During the 1988 session, a bill introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Box Elder, attempted to eliminate the board. Because the board is constitutionally required, it would take a vote of the public to eliminate it. Bishop's bill gained the necessary two-thirds vote in the House, but because there seemed insufficient support in the Senate, it did not advance to that body.

Board members listed a number of reasons a state board is necessary.

The board also serves as a board of vocational education, said member M. Richard Maxfield. During the past year, it has been more aggressive in its attempts to upgrade vocational/technical education to meet an increasing need for workers in those fields.

He alluded to a governance battle that has gone on between public and higher education regarding the state's area vocational centers.

"In view of the needs, a change in governance now would be counterproductive," he said. Turning the vocational centers over to higher education might dilute the effort to increase vocational/technical preparation.

Board President Ruth Hardy Funk also told the legislators the board is on the verge of a new era in Utah education. A master plan prepared by a broad-based committee is in its beginning stages and promises to make a major shift in focus - from a system-driven philosophy to one that puts the individual student at the center of the effort.

Another board member, John M.R. Covey, said the board has been pulled together through the master planning exercise. "The Legislature couldn't do what the board does," he said. Most major government functions rely on a policy-making board, and education is one of Utah's largest concerns.

The state board, along with its staff, the State Office of Education, performs many vital functions, including carrying through legislative edicts. It disburses both federal and state monies to the state's 40 districts, oversees teacher quality through its certification program, provides support for rural districts that can't afford to have specialists on staff and is responsible for developing statewide curriculum.

However, House Speaker Nolan Karras, who served on the committee that developed the "Shift in Focus" document, said some legislators see the school board as "a cheerleader for education and not a managerial entity." He said the board has not been willing to make tough management decisions and makes the Legislature the scapegoat for what some of the public sees as insufficient funding.

"If you are not willing to make those tough decisions, we don't need you," he said. "Fifty members of the Legislature last year voted to do away with you. We don't want to do away with the advisory role; we want you to manage the system."

Board Member Keith Checketts responded that the board has responsibly created budgets as directed - with a base budget that meets minimal needs, then a prioritized list of "building blocks" that can be funded as extra money is available.