SALT LAKE CITY — The State School Board would be eliminated and its powers vested in a governor-appointed state superintendent under a proposal unanimously approved by the Senate Education Committee Friday.
SJR16, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, seeks to amend the Utah Constitution to change who oversees the state's public education system. The joint resolution would have to pass each legislative house by a two-thirds margin to be placed on a statewide ballot. Constitutional amendments then require the majority approval of voters.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the governance model of public education in Utah does not work.
"I think if there is a dirty little secret in state government, it's that we need to change the governing model for public education. It's a $6 billion industry. Everywhere you go, you hear about it. It sometimes just falls to me sometimes to say 'All right, the emperor doesn't have any clothes,' " he said.
Presently, no one is at the wheel of public education, Dabakis said.
"The governor has nothing to say other than the bully pulpit and the ability to veto appropriations bills about what's going in education and everybody thinks the governor is running the show. It is all vested, as in the constitution, in this group. I just think it hasn't worked out very well," he said.
Two members of the Utah State Board of Education spoke to the bill, one in favor, the other opposed.
After three years of serving on the State School Board, Spencer Stokes said he has concluded that "there are about 400 people in charge of public education. We have 104 legislators who are superintendents at large. Then you have 40 LEAs (local education agencies) that have school boards that all have their bailiwick. Add to that all the superintendents and so you have about 400 people in charge of public education. When you have that, no one is accountable."
Stokes said he represents a school board district that is larger than that of a state senator.
"In my district, I'm 100 percent sure that no one knows who their State School Board member is," he said.
SJR16 would provide a governance model that is transparent and accountable, he said.
"This could really change the face of public education," he said.
But Carol Barlow Lear, who is newly elected to the state board but worked more than 35 years representing the board as an agency attorney, disagreed.
"My opinion is the state board is very vital, very needed, very important to the state," she said.
The State School Board sets educational standards, licenses school teachers, handles teacher discipline and protects school trust assets as well as oversees special education and other important duties, she said.
"I firmly believe in representative democracy. Mr. Stokes points out very well that there's some disagreement among school board members, that it is not always a smoothly running ship. But my feeling is, democracy is messy. Representative government is messy. It's not always as perfect as one person in charge. If anti-messiness were the standard, we'd have one person in charge of state government," she said.
The Utah Education Association spoke in opposition of SJR16 while the Utah Eagle Forum offered its support.
Chase Clyde, representing UEA, said the State School Board is "a good institution and we should elect them in a nonpartisan way."
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said she's waited years to be on the same page on legislation as Dabakis, one of the more outspoken, liberal members of the Utah Legislature.
"I waited almost 30 years for this very moment to have this bill before us," Ruzicka said.3 comments on this story
The governor should appoint a superintendent to ensure accountability over the system, she said. Under the Utah Constitution, the elected State School Board appoints the state superintendent.
"We should be able to say to the governor 'This is good' or 'This is bad.' If it is wrong, we should be able to blame him. If it's good, we ought to be able to say 'Thank you,' " Ruzicka said.
"Most of all, we should be able to talk to him, whomever he or she may be, when they are running for that position of governor about our concerns in education and the policies we would like him to implement," she said.
SJR16 moves to the full Senate for consideration.