SALT LAKE CITY — A recent ruling by a federal judge has placed November's State School Board election in limbo while throwing new fuel onto an often fiery debate about the role partisan politics plays in education policy.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups struck down Utah's frequently criticized process of electing school board members, which sees the candidate pool narrowed down by an appointed committee before the final two candidates for each seat are selected by the governor.
A lawsuit was brought against the governor, lieutenant governor and members of the review committee by former candidates who seek to have their names restored to the ballot after being rejected by the committee earlier this year.
Waddoups stopped short of ordering that the plaintiffs' names be placed on the ballot — an action that could potentially open the doors to 56 individuals who filed as candidates but were similarly rejected or withdrew from consideration.
A hearing has been set for Thursday, during which Waddoups is expected to hear possible remedies from the involved parties and issue final orders in the case.
But with Utah's current statute deemed unconstitutional, it remains to be seen what method of selecting a State School Board will take its place.
"We’ll see first what we need to do for Thursday and then the first Tuesday in November and beyond," Marty Carpenter, Gov. Gary Herbert's spokesman, said. "A lot of those decisions are a little premature until Thursday when we have a better understanding of what the options are."
In his ruling, Waddoups said the "unfettered discretion" of the governor and the governor's review committee to advance or reject candidates has a chilling effect on the viewpoints of school board candidates.
"Such a process neither provides a compelling reason for abridging free speech, nor does it provide a narrowly tailored means of meeting the state’s interest of having an orderly ballot," Waddoups wrote.
Different methods for governing public education exist throughout the nation, from partisan elected school boards to departments of education that are wholly appointed and exist within the state's executive branch.
But Utah's hybrid system, a quasi-direct election filtered through appointed officials and the governor, has been a perennial sticking point for advocacy groups both inside and outside the education profession.
"We’re grateful for the ruling," Utah Parent Teacher Association President-elect Dawn Davies said. "Correct or incorrect, we believe it better serves the public to not have that process."
Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, said in an email that he sees potential in the system used by Washington state, in which some members of the State School Board are selected by school officials at the district level.
"We consistently say that the best education decisions are made at the local level," Cox said. "Why not put our money where our mouth is and vest more power in those locally elected school boards?"
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, has run several bills aimed at reforming the State School Board elections, including HB223, which passed the House last year but failed in a split 3-3 vote of the Senate Education Committee.
The bill would have created direct, nonpartisan elections for State School Board, a system that Nielson describes as representative and pragmatic.
At the same time, lawmakers debated and ultimately rejected another bill that would have also created direct elections, albeit through the party nomination process.
Nielson, who is not running for re-election this year, said he expects that a "clean up" bill, or bills, will be sponsored during the upcoming legislative session in response to Waddoups' ruling.
If history is any indication, he said, the ruling will trigger two competing pushes to make school board elections either partisan or nonpartisan.
"I don’t believe, personally, that our school system should be politicized," Nielson said.
Nielson said some conservative lawmakers may be encouraged to support partisan elections based on the belief that it would lead to a more conservative State School Board.
But he added that efforts by Republicans to create a Republican school board would likely lead to a "bruising fight" with the education community.
"As I’ve said many times, this is a fight the Republican Party doesn’t need and it’s a fight we can’t win," he said. "I think that we will create a very divisive struggle with many educators and education associations and we’ll lose it."
From a policy perspective, Nielson said, it begins to be unclear where the line should be drawn when politics are introduced into education.
If the State School Board is partisan, he said, then what about local school boards, school district superintendents or even school principals?
"I see it as short-term opportunism, if you will, and I don’t think it's sound public policy in the long term," he said.
But others argue that the structure and organization of the party system is necessary for voters to truly make an informed decision in the ballot box.
"I belive that's the only answer so that people know who they’re voting for," Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said.
She said part of the problem with the current process is a lack of accountability, in that candidates do not disclose their partisan ideologies and parents must watch for voting patterns after a candidate has already been elected.
She said it helps voters to know what party a candidate belongs to and what they stand for.
"If it works well for legislators and the governor and attorney general and all the elected officials, why wouldn't we do that in the school board?" she said.
Derek Monson, director of public policy for the Sutherland Institute, told KSL NewsRadio's Doug Wright on Monday that there is the potential for a "grand compromise" where half the board's members are designated as partisan and nonpartisan, respectively.
He said that rather than continue to sponsor and defeat the same bills every year, lawmakers can strike a middle ground that would allow individual candidates to choose their route to the board.
"I think what that will do is create a healthy sense of competition as well as a healthy sense of getting more people involved in ways they’re more comfortable being involved," he said.
Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, a libertarian advocacy organization, said that independent of the debate between partisan and nonpartisan, Utahns are best served by having school officials who are elected rather than selected.
"We think the people who are governed, and in theory represented, by these individuals should have a say," he said. "That power needs to be in the hands of the people, not indirectly controlled through other elected officials."
He said the Libertas Institute prefers a system of partisan elections, but any form of direct elections is preferable to the committee vetting of the current statute.
"As long as the people have a say, and right now they don’t," he said.
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