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New bill would do away with partisan school board elections

Photos of Utah State Board of Education building
Courtesy Utah State Board of Education
A new bill would change the way members of the state school board are selected — from partisan elections to governor appointments.

The way Utah chooses members of the state board of education has changed a lot over the years.

David Irvine, a lawyer who served as a state representative in the 1970s, said the state has tried it all — governor-appointments, recommendation committees made up of special interest groups and non-partisan elections.

Most recently, the state moved to a partisan election system, allowing candidates to run affiliated with a political party.

Now, Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, is sponsoring a new bill to change the process again. Her legislation would once again give the governor the ability to choose candidates, who would then need approval from the Utah Senate. It would also reduce the number of seats from 15 to nine.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a retired public school teacher, said she prefers nonpartisan elections for school board members, but still supports the bill. She is one of many critics of the partisan system, which she said helped accelerate the politicization of public education over the past two years.

“I've seen that evolution and I think where we are is the worst place we've been,” Moss said. “It's been a very frustrating year, but I think we have to keep trying to educate people on how public education decides what we teach students.”

The state’s first partisan school board election in 2020 led to the appointment of Natalie Cline, a polarizing figure who’s been critical of things like mask mandates and schools’ efforts around diversity and inclusion.

She’s been publicly reprimanded by USBE leadership several times during her tenure, citing her frequent social media posts that often accuse teachers of indoctrinating students.

“If you start allowing certain political groups to undermine and shape the curriculum in ways that suit their ideologies, you lose the whole purpose of public education,” Moss said. “I think that when you weigh risk, the risk is lower [with governor appointments vs partisan elections] that you get people that have radical views.”

Part of the rationale behind a governor-appointed system is that an elected official will know potential school board candidates better than members of the public, Irvine said, who often have no idea who their school board members are. The governor, then, would presumably be in a better position to make informed decisions.

The downside is that some governors may make better decisions than others, he said.

“I guess I'm in favor of anything at this point because we've tried everything to keep state school board members elected, and that evidently doesn't satisfy the Legislature either,” Irvine said. “So I'm inclined to accept a governor-appointed board, but I'm not persuaded in the least that that's any kind of guarantee that we will get better results.”

He said while any system can lead to the selection of “yahoos,” at least with public elections, the voters are accountable, though his preference would be to keep them non-partisan.

Voters will get the final say, however, in whether the new change will happen. The bill requires a constitutional amendment, which can only be done with public approval.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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