School Board Election Changes Given OK by House Committee

wpid-800px-Andrew_Classroom_De_La_Salle_University.jpegCompeting pieces of legislation seeking to solve the vexing question of how state school board members should be elected were debated Thursday in the House Education Committee.

Taking up the entire committee meeting, five bills and one resolution were discussed. A number of different courses of action are being proposed by lawmakers.

First on the agenda was SB 104 – Education Elections and Reporting Amendments, which is sponsored by Senator Alvin Jackson (Republican – Highland). The bill would allow for partisan state school board elections and was substituted to give school districts the option to decide whther their elections are partisan or nonpartisan.

Jackson says his bill is all about encouraging accountability. “The school board needs to be accountable to the parents. Our beloved caucus system affords parents and citizens the opportunity to properly vet those candidates who would serve on the school board just like they do for the governor, legislature, attorney general, county commissioners, and so forth. They should have the opportunity to do this with the school board, and I would venture to say that’s even more important than some of the other offices I listed.”

Representative Carol Spackman Moss (Democrat – Holladay) feels that parents are already very involved. “I’ve been in this business of education for most of my life and the legislature quite a few years and I see parents more involved than ever before.”

“It’s not perfect, but it works. It’s most emblematic of a republic. It, to me, gives the parents the authority and the opportunity to vet those, to wire brush those, to ask questions,” Jackson said of the caucus system.

Stan Rasmussen, representing the Sutherland Institute, supports Senator Jackson’s proposal. “The system proposed in SB 104 produces clarity for voters and parents by giving them the same system to select state school board members that they use for every other state elected office in Utah.”

Rasmussen also believes that partisan elections will improve transperancy. “The system produces transperancy by adding to state school board elections the heightened media scrutiny that partisan elections create through a narrative of partisan competition as well as the heightened voter scrutiny that comes with the caucus/convention primary system.”

HB 186 State School Board Membership and Election Amendments, sponsored by Representative Francis Gibson (Republican – Mapleton), would continue nonpartisan elections and provide the option to allow candidates to gather signatures to get on the ballot rather than going through the initial appointment process currently in place for the State Board of Education.

Gibson’s bill attempts to find some middle ground. “My bill germinated as a compromise in my mind because for six years I’ve stood here and partisan [elections have] failed every time. I wanted to have a backstop that would still allow an opportunity for people to know at least who’s on the ballot, as opposed to a small interviewing committee of 4 or 5 and the governor chooses. At 2,000 signatures, that’s 2,000 people that at least know Francis Gibson, hypothetically, was running for state school board than knew him before.”

HJR 16 – Proposal to Amend Utah Constitution – Governance of Public Education from Representative Dan McCay (Republican – Riverton), would put forth a proposal to amend the Utah State Constitution to allow the governor to appoint school board members; voters would get to weigh in on this measure in 2016.

McCay believes the state school board lacks the same checks and balances that the three branches of government have. “Until they do [have checks and balances], the legislature, in my position from my bird’s eye view, will always be a super state school board” He believes that we need to “fundamentally change that form of governence in a way that makes the state school board aligned with the governor and aligned with the legislature so that they are working together.”

Laney Benedict, representing the group Parents Involved in Education (PIE), presented the commitee with a petition signed by 1,750 people calling for nonpartisan school board elections. A dueling petition with more than 1,200 signatures was also given to the commitee. “PIE opposes partisan school board elections because they shouldn’t be done in a convention with limited delegates voting on them. Let the vote come from we, the people.”

Lisa Nentl-Bloom, executive director of the Utah Education Association, feels that nonpartisan elections would allow for more accountability. “We believe that direct, nonpartisan elections would increase the accountability to voters and better involve the community in the electoral process. Requiring signatures, both from the state board district itself and from each individual school board district, ensures that the candidate is engaged in the community in every area of the district.”

All three measures were advanced by the committee and now head to the full House for its consideration.

The committee took no action on legislation from Representatives Kraig Powell (Republican – Heber City) and Norm Thurston (Republican – Provo) as well as an additional bill from McCay. Ideas proposed included state school board members to be sitting members on a local school district or charter school board and allowing local school boards to choose state school board members.

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