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Utah needs a new system for electing state school board members, but a preliminary discussion by legislative leaders on Wednesday suggested a replacement won't come easy.
The state's current process which includes candidates vetted by a committee and the governor was struck down in September by U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups, who said the vetting process violated candidates' free speech rights.
Members of the Education Task Force heard a legal review of Waddoup's ruling and were presented with possible options for replacing the election system.
But several lawmakers commented that efforts to reform elections have been divisive in the past and likely will be in the future.
"We're going to have to do a lot of work to put together another system," Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said.
Past debates have largely focused on whether school board elections should be partisan or nonpartisan.
Most education organizations and the state school board support the creation of nonpartisan elections, but Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said that option is not likely to be favored by lawmakers.
"I think the last thing we're going to do is nonpartisan elections," he said.
Thomas Vaughn, an attorney with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, said the state could continue to challenge Waddoup's ruling, remove discriminatory practices from the current system, amend the Utah State Constitution to establish an appointed school board or create partisan or nonpartisan elections.
He also said lawmakers could look into a hybrid system that preserves aspects of the current system while removing threats to free speech.
"There's definitely some options that people haven't considered or haven't tried," Vaughn said.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said he was "bewildered" by Waddoups' decision, which he described as throwing a grenade into the Legislature and expecting lawmakers to clean up the mess.
"The reason we have this system is because the Legislature could never agree on another system," he said.
Lawmakers are expected to debate the issue during the upcoming legislative session.
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said he intends to reintroduce a bill he sponsored last year that would have created direct partisan elections for the state school board.
He said the party structure works well for other state races and would provide a comparatively simple and inexpensive remedy for Waddoups' ruling by placing the state school board in an established election system.
"Anything else requires the creation of a new process," he said.
Greene said he has heard from other lawmakers looking into election alternatives and he would support those efforts if they prove to be superior to partisan elections.
"The direction is clear now, we have to do something," he said.
Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, has also opened a bill file titled "Changes to State Board of Education." He did not respond to requests for comment.