Jordan Allred, Deseret News
A recruiting and nominating committee tasked with narrowing the field of State School Board candidates has finalized its recommendations to the governor.
We’ve been overwhelmed with the quality of the people who have put themselves forward. We’re heartened by the fact there’s so many great people who want to serve. —Nolan Karras, committee chairman

SALT LAKE CITY — After two days of interviews, a nominating and recruiting committee tasked with narrowing the field of State School Board candidates finalized its recommendations for Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday.

Committee members advanced the names of all four incumbents seeking re-election, as well as the names of three or four candidates for each of seven school board seats in contention.

In addition to the 14 candidates selected Monday, the committee advanced Joylin Lincoln, Joel Wright and incumbent Heather Groom for District 9, which includes the north and west portions of Utah County, as well as Amy Hayter, Laura Collier Belnap, Mark Bouchard and Ruland Gill for District 5, located in Davis County.

"We’ve been overwhelmed with the quality of the people who have put themselves forward," committee chairman Nolan Karras said. "We’re heartened by the fact there’s so many great people who want to serve."

The 21 candidates selected by the committee, as well as all three candidates from southern Utah's District 14, will now be reviewed by Herbert. The governor will choose two candidates per seat to appear on November's ballot.

Utah's indirect process for electing school board members is often the subject of criticism from members of the education and political community who argue it lessons accountability to voters and bars some candidates from participation.

Three bills were sponsored during the most recent legislative session seeking to create direct elections or exclude lobbyists from serving on the review committee, but all three bills stalled during debate.

Leslie Castle, a member of the State School Board who observed the interviews Tuesday, objected to the amount of repetition used by committee members.

Most candidates received nearly verbatim questions on charter schooling and the implementation of education standards to the point that the final candidates appearing before the committee joked about being able to answer without being asked.

"They seem to be making their decision based on one question and vetting candidates based on one question and one issue," Castle said.

She also expressed concern about the lack of diversity among the review committee's 12 members, who are appointed by the governor, which she said leads to a similar lack of diversity among school board candidates.

"I would be so thrilled to see this committee represented with the same demographics the state is represented by," Castle said. "Historically, the state board itself ends up lacking that same representation."

Much of Tuesday's discussion was again centered on the Common Core State Standards, which outline the minimum skills in math and English that students should master and have been adopted by all but six states.

State education officials have faced lingering pressure to withdraw from the standards, as some opponents view the Common Core as a federal intrusion in local schools despite the standards' being voluntarily adopted and preserving curriculum decisions at the local district level.

"Utah has invested a lot of time and treasure into developing the standards and the assessments aligned with them," Hayter said. "Before we scrap those, I’d like to see the board push and try to make the implementation as successful as possible."

Several candidates said there had been a lack of communication with parents and teachers when the Common Core was first adopted, leading to misunderstanding of the issue today.

"I support Common Core, but the rollout from it, the buy-in from teachers and parents hasn’t occurred yet," Gill said.

Bouchard, former chairman of the business-led education advocacy movement Prosperity 2020, said the angst over Common Core is indicative of a larger funding problem in which Utah's educators are not adequately trained and equipped to implement statewide changes.

"We have not provided them, in the last two decades, all the tools they need to be successful," he said. "A large majority of that group believes in the Core, and in fact the data shows that we’re accomplishing things."

He said the State School Board and Legislature need to work together to develop long-term funding strategies that include not only keeping up with enrollment growth but also investing in improvements. There are business concepts that apply to the management of a statewide education system, Bouchard said, such as focusing on strategic investments, implementing best practices and using large economies of scale to reduce costs.

"I think there are practical things we can learn from business, especially larger business, that apply itself well in terms of thinking strategically about education," he said. "I don’t tell educators what I think they should do. What I do is try to apply practical solutions to challenges they have that my lens offers that their lens doesn’t."

Lincoln also spoke of the need for greater communication and collaboration with lawmakers. She referenced the failed attempt to implement a so-called "one-to-one" device initiative during the most recent legislative session that dissolved due to disagreements over funding.

"In the end, the students lost. No technology was funded," she said. "Communication has got to be key."

Groom, the incumbent in District 9, spoke about the governor's "66 by 2020" goal, which calls for two-thirds of Utah adults to hold a degree or certificate by 2020.

She said she supports that goal but worries about "the other 34 percent" being left out. Groom said she'd like to see the state's focus on college and career readiness be expanded to include citizen and community readiness.

"Ultimately, all children will be part of the community, and they need to know how they can add value," she said.


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