Webb: The shortness of our political memories is rather amazing. A number of years ago, many leaders were concerned about the quality of candidates running for the State School Board. These positions are very important, but they're also quite obscure, so few voters knew the candidates or had any idea who they were voting for in the voting booth.
Thus, some pretty strange characters were elected to the board. Clearly, we weren't getting the best and brightest.
To ensure that top-notch, capable people would be elected, the selection process was changed so that the governor appoints a 12-member nominating committee of smart, fair, upstanding citizens, who in turn screen candidates who file for school board slots and pare the list to the three best. Those names are then sent to the governor, who selects the best two finalists to go on the November ballot. It's quite similar to the process of selecting state judges, except the judges don't go on the ballot.
Seems like a pretty reasonable process, but some partisans and editorial writers hate the system because it is apparently producing some candidates they don't like. So they argue the system is somehow being manipulated by special interest groups. The reality is that these do-gooders are worried that conservatives who support vouchers might somehow get on the ballot, and they don't like it.
So there will be a push in the next legislative session to return to the old system of nonpartisan direct democracy, where all candidates for a school board slot run in a primary, with the top two vote-getters continuing to the final election. Once again, few voters will know who they're voting for, and getting good people to serve will be mostly a matter of luck.
If we're going to return to direct democracy, we should at least run the candidates through the partisan election process so they are thoroughly vetted and scrutinized in the caucus, convention and primary system. Candidates will be forced to campaign hard, convince delegates and win significant support before getting on the final ballot. Do-gooders will argue that such a process will only produce conservatives, but that's not true. Note that conservative incumbent legislators Glenn Donnelson and Aaron Tilton got dumped in that very process this year. Clearly, we'll get better final candidates through the partisan process than a random, nonpartisan election.
Pignanelli: "The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions." Plato
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and his family are well-known in national GOP circles, yet they are equally famous for a bipartisan, ecumenical approach in their deliberations and interactions. Thus, it is natural the governor is recommending dumping the cumbersome process of appointing candidates for the State School Board, and keeping it nonpartisan.
Most Western states have maintained the Progressive Era structure of nonpartisan school district and municipal offices. The day-to-day operations of these organizations (streets, sewers, zoning, building maintenance, textbooks, etc.) are not Republican or Democratic matters. This logic is especially compelling today as parties are burdened with special-interest organizations who maintain heavy influence in the convention process. There is no advantage to subjecting school officials to their demands (i.e. articulating a policy on immigration, abortion, marriage, etc.).
Our community is best served by Utahns from all walks of life who are passionate about instilling quality and accountability into our education system. I strongly doubt the efficacy of vouchers (and certainly abhor the tactics utilized by some adherents) but happily acknowledge their supporters care about the schools. The debate the voucher referendum fostered should never end. In order to compete in the 21st century, our children and future generations must have an education composition that provides accountability, higher-quality and better use of tax dollars. Partisan arguments will only distract from these important judgments.
The Legislature has a legitimate frustration with the bureaucratic machinery of the State Office (a concern I developed during my service on Capitol Hill). Yet lawmakers have the constitutional tools to push accountability and quality. Subjecting school board members to the whims of party delegates will not help them in these important endeavors.
Utah's experience with city councils and local school boards clearly demonstrates nonappointed, nonpartisan elections deliver the best supervisors of day-to-day operations. As the proud father of children actively engaged in the public education system, I share the belief with thousands of other Utah parents that representative democracy, without the shackles of partisanship, will foster needed changes to Utah schools.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: [email protected]. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: [email protected].