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Don’t ignore the down ballot. Utah school boards are important too

Brian Albers

In addition to Utah’s competitive U.S. Senate race, there are also a number of local school board races happening across the state in this year’s midterm election. Local school boards play a big role in the direction and functionality of a district. So, like judges, it’s a part of your ballot that you shouldn’t ignore.

What do local school boards do?

The “powers and duties” of local school boards are outlined in state code. School boards set policies for the district, hire/fire the superintendent, approve the budget and sign off on the curriculum used in the district, to name a few of their responsibilities.

Utah Education Association’s Policy and Research Director Jay Blain said sometimes the Utah State Board of Education will create a policy or the state Legislature will pass a law, but implementation is left up to local school districts and school boards.

For example, earlier this year the state Board of Education directed school districts and charter schools to create policies surrounding how books are selected for the school’s library and what happens if someone requests a book be removed. The state Board created a model policy after the state legislature passed a bill banning “sensitive materials” in schools, but local school districts could design their own policies. Those policies have to be approved by the local school board.

There is no one in the district that can overrule a school board’s decision as long as it’s legal, according to Blain. But if the board passed a new policy that upset a good portion of the community, board members might reconsider after hearing from their constituents. If they didn’t, they could be voted out when they’re up for reelection.

Linda Hanks is a 12-year veteran of the Juab School District Board of Education and is currently running for reelection against Carli Wright. Hanks is also the president of the Utah School Boards Association, and said local school boards decide the general direction a district will move in and then the district implements that vision.

“As we gather input from the constituents, that’s how we create that vision, that general mission,” she said. “That’s how we know that we’re reflective of the public.”

What makes an effective board member?

Blain said it is someone who is willing to listen to the public and is willing to work collaboratively with other board members and the school district.

When deciding who to vote for, one recommendation is to look at a school board candidate's background and what policies they espouse. Blain said some candidates may focus only on one issue in their campaign. For example, they might say they will cut property taxes if elected. One school board member can’t make any changes just by themselves, they have to work with the whole board to make changes.

“Make sure they don’t think they have all the answers because no one has all the answers,” he said. “I don’t even have all the answers and I’ve been doing education stuff for 35 years.”

Why care about local school board races?

Blain thinks who's on your local school district’s board is important to everyone, not just parents.

“This might seem a little hackneyed or trite, but the future leaders and taxpayers are students in schools right now,” he said.

School board members make decisions about what those students are taught. Blain added local school boards also make decisions about how taxes are spent. School boards approve the district’s budget and can vote to increase or decrease property taxes.

“Always go down the ballot. Don’t stop at the top,” Blain said. “These are important elections, it matters a lot. And you can’t complain about them if you don’t vote.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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