School Board Selection Stop-Gap Bill Advances Along Party Lines

Senator Ann Millner (Republican - Ogden)
Senator Ann Millner (Republican – Ogden)

Yet another proposed fix to Utah’s State School Board election procedures was introduced Friday.

Prior to 2014, the state had a vetting committee who would recommend some candidates to the governor for approval. That procedure was found unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups, who said that it violated candidates’ free speech rights by keeping them from appearing on the ballot – just because they don’t fit a certain set of criteria.

During the 2015 General Session, multiple bills were run to help fix the issue, though none of them would make it to the Governor’s desk.

Senator Ann Millner (Republican – Ogden) is proposing a stop-gap measure to be used until a more permanent solution is determined by the legislature.

“We do need something and we need something that’s close to what we have had. We’re trying to tweak the issues that were addressed by the judge to make this more acceptable,” she said.

SB 78 – State Board of Education Candidate Selection calls for a committee to help select candidates, but the proposed committee would be barred from deciding for or against a candidate based on their “political or educational philosophies, viewpoints, or affiliations.” If successful, the legislation will automatically expire on January 1, 2017.

Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) took issue with the part of the bill that restricts some form of vetting. “I guess this is a legal contortion, but it is also a legal fiction. Hopefully, because the thought that you can put a blind pool of people and simply look at the boards they were on without taking into consideration their educational philosophy for this kind of appointment, it seems to me to be felliniesque,” he said.

Tami Pyfer, education advisor to Governor Gary Herbert, has similar reservations. “The current bill, in its proposed form, is difficult for us because it requires the governor to make an appointment to the State Board of Education, but he’s restricted from considering a person’s education philosophies and viewpoints. We just believe that that’s not good policy when you’re making an appointment as important as the State Board of Education but not being able to ask or consider a person’s educational philosophies,” she said.

According to Pyfer, the governor is proposing to hold a primary election in June to help narrow down the candidates instead. Such a bill calling for the Governor’s option has not yet been filed.

Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper) loves Millner’s idea. “This is a brilliant solution/stop-gap to make sure that we don’t wind up on the November ballot with somebody who’s elected to the State School Board with only 18 percent of the vote. I think that would be a travesty. It wouldn’t serve the public. It wouldn’t serve our education system. I think to prohibit the things that Judge Waddoups said needed to be prohibited it is just an appropriate thing to do,” he said.

The bill was advanced on a 4-1 party-line vote and now heads to the full Senate for its consideration.

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