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A bill to create direct, nonpartisan elections for the state school board is headed to the Senate floor after gaining unanimous approval Tuesday from a committee that defeated a similar proposal last year.

New in this year's bill is a provision that candidates collect at least 2,000 signatures from their constituents in order to qualify for the ballot.

Sponsoring Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said the signature requirement is meant to satisfy the concerns of partisan election supporters who favor the vetting of candidates by party delegates.

"Two thousand [signatures] is big enough that you have to make an effort to be on the ballot," Gibson said.

Currently, school board candidates are interviewed by a nominating committee and placed on the ballot by the governor.

That process was effectively struck down in September by U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups, who wrote in a preliminary ruling that the interview and selection method violates free speech rights. His decision triggered a flurry of school board election bills at the Legislature, but most of those proposals have been rejected by House members.

Chase Clyde, a spokesman for the Utah Education Association, referred lawmakers to a recent poll by that showed most Utahns prefer nonpartisan elections for the state school board.

He urged Senate Education Committee members to support Gibson's bill, describing the signature requirement as significant but reasonable.

"These candidates shouldn't be focused on party platforms," Clyde said. "They should be focused on good education policy."

Gibson said he was aware of the divided opinions of House representatives, who prefer nonpartisan elections, and Senators, who prefer partisan elections. He said his intent with HB186 was to strike a compromise. He said he was open to further negotiations as the bill advances.

"We'll see what we can come up with," Gibson said.

Three Republican senators who voted to kill a nonpartisan election bill last year — Howard Stephenson of Draper, Stephen Urquhart of St. George and Mark Madsen of Saratoga Springs — voted for the legislation Tuesday.

The bill now goes before the Senate for consideration. A partisan school board bill is pending in the House.