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Measures would shake up who controls Utah's public education

Published January 24, 2013 6:48 pm

Schools • Measure would give Senate, guv say over hiring of state superintendent.
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The longtime political battle over who should control education in Utah seems poised to continue during the upcoming legislative session with several proposals that seek to once again shake up who holds power over Utah schools.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, is running measures to give lawmakers and the governor more say over the employment of Utah's top school official and to change the way the state school board is elected. At least one of those proposals, SJR5, may draw heated opposition.

Reid's proposal, SJR5, would amend the state's Constitution to require the governor's approval and the Senate's consent for the appointment of state superintendents. It also would give the governor the power to fire the state superintendent, after consulting with the state school board. Now, the state school board alone is in charge of hiring and firing the state superintendent. If lawmakers pass the resolution this session, a majority of Utah voters would then have to approve it in 2014 to change the Constitution.

Reid said the resolution could allow the governor some control over public education, just as he now has say over the leaders of higher education. The governor and Senate must also approve of the commissioner of higher education's hiring.

"I think it's really important for every part of our education system to be working together," Reid said. "This ties him into the whole education system in a way that he becomes accountable to the public for the success of education."

Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said the governor supports the resolution.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, also called Reid's proposal positive, saying it makes sense to tie the state's education administration to the legislative and executive branches, which set the state's education budget.

Hughes was one of four lawmakers who last year issued a statement criticizing the process by which the current state superintendent was selected by the state school board, arguing that the board rushed the process, leading to fewer applicants and giving newly elected members no say.

Reid, however, said his resolution wasn't spurred by those criticisms but rather is something he's been planning to run for quite some time.

Not everyone, however, is eager to give lawmakers and the governor more power over education leaders.

Debra Roberts, state school board chairwoman, said the board hasn't taken a position on the proposal yet, but she personally believes the change wouldn't boost education.

"I don't see that this improves instruction," Roberts said. "I don't see how this helps out education in any way. It seems like a peripheral issue instead of looking at the things that are really helping students."

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, also criticized the measure, saying she worries state superintendents might be selected or fired for partisan reasons. Plus, she said, the state school board is fully capable of making the decision of who should be superintendent.

"It looks to me that they're trying to take the state board right out of this decision … State school board members are duly elected by the public, and I think they should be the ones to oversee that hiring and firing," Moss said.

Moss also isn't thrilled about Reid's other proposal, a bill that would run in conjunction with the resolution, to change the way the state school board is elected.

Under the current system, a governor-appointed committee chooses three candidates for each seat to forward to the governor, who then chooses two to appear on the ballot. It's a process that's drawn criticism for years, with incumbents sometimes being booted from the race by the committee, which critics say takes choice away from the public.

Reid's bill would replace that one committee with local committees charged with selecting candidates in their areas to forward to the governor for consideration. It will also include language related to SJR5 and will only be allowed to pass if the resolution does, Reid said.

The bill, Reid said, is meant as a compromise. Though many have wanted to change the process for years, disagreements over whether to keep it nonpartisan or make it partisan have stymied past proposals. Reid's bill would keep the process nonpartisan but mean more local involvement in the process, he said.

Reid said he's running the bill at the request of the Governor's Office. When asked to confirm that, Isom said: "We are working with Senator Reid and will continue to work through the specifics of the bill. We're exploring ways to improve the process."

Moss, who's running a bill, HB267, to make the elections direct and nonpartisan, said Reid's proposal sounds like "a very slight improvement." She said Reid's idea doesn't solve the problem of taking the decision out of voters' hands.

Roberts, however, said the state school board would support such a change to the election process. The board voted in the fall to back the idea of allowing local committees to vet state school board candidates for the governor. She said given the perpetual disagreement over whether the process should be partisan or nonpartisan, the board felt such a compromise had the best chance of actually passing the Legislature.

She said the proposal would at least bring the board election process closer to local control.


Twitter: @lschencker




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