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If state lawmakers have their way, candidates for the state school board and the four largest school districts' boards will have to run the gauntlet of Utah's party nominating system.

A bill creating partisan elections for state and local school boards passed a final vote of the Senate on Wednesday.

Senators voted 19-8 to approve SB104 after amending it to require partisan elections for school districts with more than 50,000 students.

Highland Republican Sen. Alvin Jackson, the bill's sponsor, said the amended measure would affect only the state school board and four "mega-districts" — Alpine, Davis, Granite and Jordan.

Utah's fifth-largest school district, Canyons School District, currently enrolls roughly 33,600 students, according to the most recent data from the State Office of Education.

Jackson argues local school board races already are partisan, and requiring candidates to secure a party nomination would place school board elections within the caucus and convention system "that we hold dear" in Utah.

"These elections are more political than you can ever imagine," he said.

Conservative lawmakers maintain school board elections are only nominally nonpartisan now.

"Make no mistake, these elections are partisan now," said West Valley City Republican Sen. Dan Thatcher. "They are partisan behind closed doors. They are partisan quietly."

But education leaders fear funneling school board elections through the state's caucus system will turn the oversight panels over to political partisans and their policy crusades — including requiring candidates to take positions on gay marriage, immigration and other elements of a party platform.

Lawmakers are considering several bills aimed at school board elections this year, but SB104 is the first to get approval from either house.

Other bills would establish direct, nonpartisan elections or would amend the Utah Constitution to allow the governor to appoint state school board members.

The flurry of proposals follows a recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups, who ruled in September that the state's hybrid election system for state school board candidates violates free speech rights.

Currently, local school board elections are nonpartisan. But candidates for the state school board are interviewed by a review committee and placed on the ballot at the discretion of the governor.

Partisan elections have long been unpopular in the education community. And a poll released this week by found that a majority of Utahns, including a plurality of Republican voters, prefer nonpartisan elections for school board members.

Sen. Evan Vickers sponsored the amendment to lift the enrollment threshold to 50,000 students. The Cedar City Republican said he was trying to find a compromise.

"My first preference would just be to make all local school districts a nonpartisan race," Vickers said.

In an attempt to defeat the bill, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, questioned whether the Hatch Act of 1939 would bar individuals from seeking a seat on a partisan school board. The federal law restricts the political activity of executive branch employees, and Escamilla argued it would extend to anyone whose salary is funded, in whole or in part, by federal dollars.

"The Hatch Act will apply," she said. "I have it here. I'm not making this up."

But Jackson was dismissive of Escamilla's argument, saying if lawmakers were concerned about the Hatch Act, all elections would be nonpartisan.

"That's not relevant to this case," he said.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, argued the bill is an attempt to ensure conservative management of schools. He questioned why large school districts, but not small districts, would benefit from partisan elections and said SB104 belongs "on the ash heap of history."

"Let's just talk turkey here," Dabakis said. "What this is about is raw, partisan politics and I think it's very, very sad."

Three Republican senators joined the chamber's five Democrats in opposing the bill.

Other GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Jerry Stevenson of Layton and Aaron Osmond of South Jordan, expressed reservations about making local school board elections partisan, but ultimately voted in support of sending the bill to the House.

"I'm uncomfortable that we haven't really vetted through the implications of the local boards," Osmond said.

The bill now goes to the Utah House for consideration.