At the last moment someone will make it a partisan election. I would support (the proposed bills), but I'm worried about it turning into something we don't want it to be. —Board member Tami Pyfer

SALT LAKE CITY — Two bills being debated at the Capitol seek to give voters more power in selecting State Board of Education members, but the proposed legislation failed to gain formal support by the board itself Thursday amid concerns of partisanship and cost.

The bills, HB59 and HB267, would remove the roles of the governor and nominating committee in the selection process and instead establish a system of direct, nonpartisan elections for State School Board members.

The key difference between the bills is that HB59, sponsored by Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, would move school board elections to odd-numbered years when nonpartisan municipal elections are typically held.

State School Board members are currently selected through a non-direct voting process in which candidates are filtered through a review committee and then by the governor prior to being placed on the ballot. The system has been criticized because incumbents are sometimes barred from running without input from their constituents.

A motion to formally support both bills received a majority vote during the board's Thursday meeting but fell short of the eight votes required for adoption.

"I wonder if we shouldn't take a position of supporting one of these, too, which seem to be a little less onerous and may be better than what we might end up with if we didn't take a position," board member Dixie Allen said prior to the vote.

The board previously has expressed support for a system in which regional committees would select the candidates to recommend to the governor, but no such legislation has been proposed.

Board members who commented on the bills were in agreement that the election of the school board should be nonpartisan. But some expressed concern that the implementation of a direct election could, at some point, lead to partisanship in school elections.

"At the last moment someone will make it a partisan election," board member Tami Pyfer said. "I would support (the proposed bills), but I'm worried about it turning into something we don't want it to be."

Over the years, the framework of Utah's public school governance has garnered criticism from several sides, from those who argue that a direct election would more adequately respect the will of parents and taxpayers, to others who feel the State School Board should be abandoned in lieu of a government-controlled department of education. 

Board member Kim Burningham said that either bill, as well as the board's previous recommendation, would be an improvement over the current system, adding that a board recommendation was no indication a bill would become law.

"Remember, whatever we do is nothing more than a statement or position and will have no impact on what will happen," Burningham said. "For me, I think we ought to be supportive of (the bills)."

State Superintendent Martell Menlove noted that HB59 would carry a financial burden related to holding a state school board election during an odd-numbered year.

"Many municipalities do not currently have primary elections. In fact, some of them don't even have general elections because of lack of candidates," Menlove said. "Having statewide elections in a year when there are not already statewide elections has a significant cost to it."

The board also discussed but did not take action on SJR5, a resolution sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, that calls for a constitutional amendment to require the governor and Senate to approve the State School Board's choice of a state superintendent.

In September, a group of four Republican lawmakers, which did not include Reid, released a statement critical of the school board's selection of a successor to former Superintendent Larry Shumway. The lawmakers took particular issue with what they described as a rushed process that didn't allow for adequate review of external candidates.

"We believe this decision should not be expedited," they wrote. "It should not be predetermined. It should be meticulous, open, inclusive and thorough."

Menlove said the resolution would create a selection system similar to that currently used for the state commissioner of higher education and the president of the Utah College of Applied Technology. He did not offer a position on the resolution itself but jokingly expressed some opposition to the specific wording of SJR5.

"It literally does say the governor may terminate the superintendent," Menlove said. "I'm assuming it means 'terminate the employment' or something like that. I'm sure that is just some wording that maybe needs to be corrected. If not, I would have some concerns."

Because the resolution calls for an amendment to the Utah Constitution, the matter would need to be presented to the public in November's general election following passage by the Legislature. It also would need to clear both houses of the Legislature by a two-thirds majority vote.