It’s not unusual for the Utah Legislature to suddenly unveil a provocative and portentous measure during the final few days of its annual session, as it has done this year with a resolution that would alter the state Constitution in order to do away with the elected Utah State School Board. Though a common legislative move, it is not the preferred way to introduce a significant change in government structure that deserves time for debate and deliberation.
In fact, though the measure passed the Senate by a vote of 22-6, two senators say they opposed it partly on grounds they haven’t had time to consider all of the consequences: “I feel like I’m not sure that I have a full enough discussion to do this,” said Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Millcreek.
The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, would put before voters a proposed amendment of the Utah Constitution to do away with the 15-member school board and vest its duties with a governor-appointed superintendent. The move would effectively change the governance of public education from a board-of-directors structure to more of an executive, CEO configuration. There are good arguments for the change, and they deserve to be voiced and vetted during a well-staged process of public discussion. Theoretically, if the resolution passes, there will be opportunity for such debate prior to a public vote in November, which is required for a constitutional amendment.
Having said that, we would also expect a more conscientious give-and-take on the issue within legislative halls before such a historic change is sprung on voters. The proposed move comes as lawmakers have been grappling over school management structures and the process of selecting leadership. Two years ago, they passed a bill that would change nonpartisan elections for school board members to partisan races, beginning this year. A court ruling has put that on hold as a result of a challenge by opponents who argue the move conflicts with the part of the state constitution that says no “partisan test” be required for employment in the school system.
The Dabakis resolution, SJR16, would render that litigation moot but would do so at the expense of a tradition valuing voter-input in the selection of education leadership. Whether the current board structure is efficient and effective in overseeing a modern education system is a legitimate question. Unfortunately, that has not so far been addressed in any detailed way in discussion of the resolution. The most prominent arguments voiced in favor have been about the low-profile nature of school board races and a lack of voter engagement in the process of selecting regional members.4 comments on this story
Guaranteeing accountability to the public in the oversight of public schools is key here. There needs to be a structure of governance in place that allows for regular public input, not one that evolves into a top-down system in which decisions are made in an executive office without the kind of public notice and hearings now afforded under the state board structure.
The changes proposed in the resolution could bring unknown ramifications in how a $4 billion enterprise is managed and how educational policy is developed and monitored. Such a sweeping change warrants the kind of exploration and reflection not possible in the waning hours of a busy legislative session.