August Miller, Deseret Morning News
Members of the House Education Committee considered two contradictory bills designed to reform the State School Board election process.

SALT LAKE CITY — Partisan or nonpartisan?

That was the question before members of the House Education Committee on Monday as they debated contradictory bills that seek to create a direct election process for State School Board members.

The committee ultimately voted 9-3 to advance Rep. Jim Nielson's bill, HB223, creating nonpartisan elections to the full House.

But HB228, which calls for partisan school board elections and is sponsored by Pleasant Grove Republican Rep. Brian Green, was defeated in a 6-7 vote and failed to clear the committee.

Supporters of nonpartisan elections — including the Utah Parent Teacher Association, Utah Education Association and State Board of Education — argue that injecting party politics into the State School Board would make education officials more responsive to the wishes of delegates than the needs of Utah's parents and children.

They also warned that candidates would be forced to take positions on non-education issues, such as same-sex marriage or immigration, to prove their party bona fides and survive the caucus and convention process.

"I do stand firm with the position that people who run for these offices should be focusing on education policy only, and if they run through a party process, I’m afraid they’ll get sidetracked," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City.

Supporters of partisan elections — including the Utah Eagle Forum, Sutherland Institute and Libertas Institute — argue that the size of school board districts make it difficult for voters to make an informed choice without the structure and organization of the party process.

"When you have nonpartisan and it’s just an open election, you get a lot of candidates, a lot of confusion, and it’s hard for the average person to sort it out," said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum.

But while there is disagreement on the issue of whether elections should be partisan, lawmakers, educators and advocacy groups are largely in consensus that the current system needs to change.

"To me, the major concern is eliminating the governor’s nominating commission," Nielson said. "That to me is the biggest wrong here."

Currently, State School Board members are selected through a process in which candidates are vetted by a review committee appointed by the governor. That review committee narrows the field of candidates down to three names per school board district, which are then given to the governor who selects the two names that will be placed on the ballot.

The selection process has been criticized for removing incumbent board members without the input of their constituents and for standing in the way of open debate and diversity among the state's top education positions.

While the State School Board has not taken a position on any individual bill related to the election of members, the board voted earlier this month to support direct, nonpartisan elections and oppose any bill that would result in partisan elections.

But other groups, particularly conservative advocacy organizations, have pushed for the State School Board to be included among the state offices decided through party candidate selection.

"It seems to me the voice of the people is most accurately reflected through partisan elections," Greene said.

Discussion on both bills pushed the committee hearing an hour beyond its scheduled end time. Lawmakers debated the extent to which the State School Board should reflect other elected bodies such as the Legislature or nonpartisan community positions such as mayor or city council, and whether voters could adequately research their options for a school board district that is twice the size of the average Utah Senate jurisdiction.

Nielson said he believes the majority of Utahns support nonpartisan election of school board members. He also disagreed with the notion of uninformed voters, saying that technology has made it easier than ever for individuals to find the information they need.

"I've always been challenged by that," he said. "We somehow can trust party politics, but we can't trust voters."

The committee also advanced a bill that would bar lobbyists from serving on the governor's candidate selection board, should the current selection process remain after the legislative session. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, would also require the selection committee to advance an incumbent seeking re-election to the governor for consideration for the ballot.

"That person has earned the right to face the voters," Powell said.

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