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Why are partisan school board elections a bad idea? They mix the ills of Utah’s partisan election system with education policy and administration.

It is ironic that at a time of concern about partisan gridlock, the growing partisan polarization in the nation and the resulting incivility and divisiveness of that polarization, the Utah State Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert have injected more partisanship into a place where it has not been before and should not be. I am referring to the Utah State School Board.

At the end of this past session, without much time for public comment (as usual), the Legislature passed a bill that made the State School Board a partisan office. The governor signed the bill to make it law. Now, the decision of who will be nominated for a position on the State School Board will be in the hands of party conventions.

Plus, this all happened in the midst of a lawsuit initiated the last time the Legislature and the governor did this. A state district judge ruled that the earlier legislation was unconstitutional. The Utah Supreme Court has yet to rule. But wisdom would have suggested the legislature wait until that decision had been rendered. When the legislature failed to use such wisdom, it was incumbent on the governor to be the leader who stood up to the legislature’s haste. But he failed to do that.

Why are partisan school board elections a bad idea? They mix the ills of Utah’s partisan election system with education policy and administration. Fortunately, one part of government that has been separated from the caucus/convention system and the partisan rhetoric of campaigns is the selection of those who manage our state school system. That is what citizens want, according to recent surveys of Utah voters.

Now, State School Board candidates will have to cater to partisan convention delegates and primary voters. They will have to espouse partisan positions to get a nomination and then satisfy partisans to remain in office. Also, this type of election will reduce competition. Now, it is common to have two candidates running in a general election for a nonpartisan State School Board office. But under a partisan system, it is quite likely only one candidate will emerge — a Republican in Republican-dominated areas and a Democrat in Democratic-dominated districts. Even if there is token competition, between straight-party voting and excessive partisanship, only one candidate will be viable.

The real losers will be the voters who will be robbed of actual choice in who serves on the State School Board. The decision will be in the hands of party activists, not ordinary voters. The Legislature and the governor effectively have disenfranchised most voters in the state (those who do not attend party conventions or vote in party primary elections).

Beyond the election, there is the issue of governance. Now, under the current nonpartisan system, school board members who seek to be reelected must appeal to a majority of all voters in the general election. Under the new system, they will have to satisfy the extreme partisans. Not surprisingly, their policy positions as school board members will reflect their new important constituency.

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Of course, this is exactly why Republican legislators supported this bill. They want the State School Board to be a partisan office, not one that challenges party orthodoxy. Their own constituencies (the Republican Party activists) urged them to pass this bill so the State School Board will not be an independent body. Instead, it will be an arm of the Republican Party.

The United Utah Party strongly opposes this legislation. Yes, if this is the system Utah is operating under, we will find candidates to run and serve on the State School Board. But we protest the fact that we would even be involved; these races should not be partisan. We reiterate that parties do not belong in the process of electing school board candidates.

We call on the legislature in its next special session to reverse this action. And we urge the public to join us in this call.