We support anything that's going to make a difference in the classroom. —Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association

SALT LAKE CITY — A total of 18 candidates, including six incumbents, are vying for nine seats on the State Board of Education, which is constitutionally charged with the general control and supervision of the state's public education system.

In District 1, incumbent Tami Pyfer is being challenged by real estate developer Alan Shakespear. District 4's incumbent David Thomas is being challenged by Bruce Davis, vice provost and dean of continuing education at Weber State University. Leslie Castle, District 7's incumbent, is being challenged by architectural engineer Carlton Getz.

Because of recent redistricting, two incumbents are running in districts different from the ones they currently represent. David Crandall, who represents District 11, is running in District 10 against Nina Welker, an adjunct faculty member at Salt Lake Community College. Dixie Allen, who currently represents District 14, is running in District 12 against Wendy Simmerman. District 13 incumbent Mark Openshaw is being challenged by Ken Parkinson.

The remaining three races are made up of non-incumbent candidates: Chris Williams and Jennifer Johnson in District 8; Sergio Vasquez and Jefferson Moss in District 11; and Bette Arial and Barbara Corry in District 15.

Among the duties of the 15-member board are setting statewide curriculum standards, administering educator licensing and sending budget and legislative recommendations to the governor and Legislature.

In Utah, the field of candidates for state school board is narrowed down to three per district by a selection committee appointed by the governor. The governor then selects two candidates to appear on November's ballot.

Two incumbents, District 8's Janet Cannon and District 12's Carol Murphy, were not recommended by the selection committee and will not appear on November's ballot. In each case where an incumbent was included among the committee's three selections, Gov. Gary Herbert placed that name on the ballot.

The ballot selection process has been frequently criticized from several sides, with opponents calling for both open partisan elections that would be sifted through the party nominating conventions or an outright elimination of the state school board in lieu of a government-managed department of education.

In his recent state of education address, Superintendent Larry Shumway called for a more open electoral process for the school board, but added that governance of education in the state should not become fodder for party politics.

"Utah would be best served by open, non-partisan elections for board members who have governance responsibilities for public schools," Shumway said. "Partisan electoral politics always give voice to the evangelists of the extreme and purveyors of simplistic solutions for complex problems. Let's keep partisan politics out of our schools."

While the election of individual board members is non-partisan, public education in Utah in nonetheless subject to the actions of Utah's Legislature, where dozens of new education bills are debated each year.

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said it can sometimes be difficult for schools to implement new policies with an ever-changing set of rules.

"Public education is one entity where we deal with multiple policy changes every year," she said. "Policies are outpacing our ability to implement the changes."

The UEA does not weigh in on specific political races, but Gallagher-Fishbaugh said she is looking forward to continuing the collaborative relationship between the UEA and the board after new members are sworn in in January.

She said there are a number of great programs being implemented in Utah schools — including a new teacher evaluation system and the state's Prosperity 2020 initiative — that she hopes board members and legislators will embrace and give educators the time and resources they need to succeed. 

"We support anything that's going to make a difference in the classroom," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com