This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah's method of electing state school board members unraveled in September after a U.S. District Court judge ruled the process was unconstitutional.
In response, several lawmakers began drafting bills aimed at putting a new election system in place, largely split between partisan and nonpartisan proposals.
But a bill by freshman Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, would not only make state school board elections partisan, it would also extend the partisan system to boards for local school districts.
Jackson, who was selected by Utah County Republican delegates to replace outgoing Sen. John Valentine in November, said school board candidates should face the same party machinery as other candidates for public office.
"I feel like I was wire-brushed and thoroughly vetted," he said. "Why don't we do the same thing for the school board?"
Even before the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups, school board elections were a contentious subject in Utah education politics.
Bills to replace the state board's election process, which saw candidates interviewed by a committee and ultimately selected by the governor, were sponsored every year but failed to gain majority support.
Widely-supported calls to create direct elections were typically stymied by the question of party politics, with educators calling for nonpartisan campaigns and advocacy organizations such as the Utah Eagle Forum and Sutherland Institute urging a partisan selection.
"Partisan politics has no place in local or state school boards as far as I'm concerned," said JoDee Sandberg, vice chairwoman of the Alpine Board of Education and a member of the Utah School Boards Association.
Sandberg said running in a partisan election would take less effort and ultimately be less representative than a nonpartisan election.
Candidates would not have to campaign for the majority of voters, she said. "All I would have to do is make sure I had my 60 delegates that supported me in the convention and that's all I'd need to worry about," she said.
But Oak Norton, a Utah County education advocate, said the delegate process is more representative because delegates are more informed about candidates than the average voter.
"The alternative is a mass popularity contest where nobody knows anything about the candidates," he said.
He also said the party structure is necessary to offset the power of special interest groups such as the Utah Education Association (UEA) and local teachers unions.
The unions endorse "establishment" candidates, he said, and encourage teachers and parents to vote a certain way.
"The process of getting a smaller number of people to vet those candidates closely, that's going to help us have less special interest," he said.
In a prepared statement, UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said direct, nonpartisan elections for municipal and local school boards have served the public well.
She said the UEA looks forward to seeing the proposals for election reform and participating in the conversation with lawmakers.
"The teachers, parents and the public overwhelmingly opposes interjecting politics into public education," she said.
But Jackson said it's wrong to assume that school boards and school board members are not already partisan.
He said the most important issue is finding a system that incentivizes transparency and accountability. "Hopefully, it starts the discussion and we can come to a collective decision," he said.