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State school board races too often fly under the public radar, according to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, creating the potential for big-money groups to effectively buy the election.
And that is what could happen this year, the Sandy Republican said Wednesday, if the National Education Association is allowed to fund its preferred school board candidates through the Utah Education Association.
That would mean a backslide into the past, Niederhauser said, when an obstinate school board clashed with state lawmakers.
"The previous [school] board that we had to work with was so much conflict," said Niederhauser, R-Sandy. "It was just completely run by education interests."
Niederhauser, joined on the phone by House Speaker Greg Hughes, hosted a webinar Wednesday, encouraging Utah's business and technology community to start writing checks to keep the school board in the right hands.
And he offered his own slate of preferred candidates: lobbyist Shelly Teuscher, Utah Technology Council President Richard Nelson and board incumbents Dave Thomas and Stan Lockhart.
"Those are the candidates that will help us and work well with us as a Legislature going forward," Niederhauser said.
The announcement for Wednesday's webinar took particular aim at teachers unions, saying those groups "value a less responsible bureaucratic status quo over innovation and local control" and are attempting to take over the Board of Education.
Allowing the union's candidates to win, the announcement said, "will turn back the clock and cause real harm to our students."
Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, objected to that language.
"The UEA is comprised of hardworking teachers across Utah," the union's leader said. "Teachers who increasingly feel disrespected from those in authority."
She said it was "disappointing" that Hughes, R-Draper, and Niederhauser would imply that a teacher-supported school board would harm children.
"While this type of divisive rhetoric has become evermore commonplace in politics," she said, "we find directing it at Utah schoolteachers to be not only insensitive, but highly offensive. We should expect more of our elected leaders."
Niederhauser opposes three school board candidates who are classroom educators.
There is room on the state school board for educators, he said, as long as they don't dominate the board or supplant business and technology representatives.
"If you create a board with candidates like that, with a supermajority, or the lion's share of the board," he said, "then you create the imbalance and the conflict that I experienced for many years in the Legislature."
He also said it was not necessarily a UEA endorsement that caused him concern, but that "it just happens that those that we're concerned with happen to be UEA endorsed."
When asked what platform and policy positions the UEA-backed candidates disagreed with him on, he said they seem to be "the same profile of what we were dealing with years ago."
"We're trying to raise some local funds to oppose all this money coming in from out of state," Niederhauser told guests on the webinar. "We can maintain a school board that brings accountability and transparency to the state office and can work well with the Legislature."
The UEA has supported six out of 16 candidates for state school board, with cash and in-kind contributions ranging between about $9,000 and $15,500.
The UEA's political action committee, or PAC, which itself received funding from the National Education Association's (NEA) PAC, made contributions.
Other contributors to state school board races include Paul S. Rogers and Associates, Reagan Outdoor Advertising, Utah Tech PAC, Hughes Leadership PAC, Utah Association of Realtors, Utah Food Industry Association and several lawmakers.
The UEA has supported several political candidates, including Gov. Gary Herbert, on whom it spent $200,000 to promote via advertising during his Republican primary race against Jonathan Johnson.
The union gave Herbert its general-election endorsement Wednesday, but Niederhauser said he is only concerned about the union's influence in the state school board races.
"It doesn't get any attention," Niederhauser said. "So it's easy with a little bit of money to get elected."
Hughes and Niederhauser expressed dissatisfaction that school board Chairman David Crandall had been defeated during the primary election.
Hughes sits on a charter school governing board with Crandall. And Niederhauser said Crandall was an important player in statewide education projects like classroom technology and STEM education, an acronym for science, technology, education and mathematics.
"Technology, in the hands of a trained teacher, will be amazing for these kids," he said. "I don't know why the NEA sees that as a threat."
Hughes added: "We would hate to see all that progress slow down or [be] interrupted."
Kathleen Riebe, a classroom educator and school board candidate who defeated Crandall in the primary, said she doesn't understand why the business community assumes she's opposed to technology.
She is her school's facilitator for Imagine Learning, an education technology company that donated to Crandall but not to her.
She said teachers like her are the front-line workers tasked with implementing statewide technology initiatives.
"How can I be rolling back innovations if I'm actually part of your program?" she said.
Wednesday's webinar was sponsored in conjunction with Fair-Minded PAC. The PAC is trying to raise $100,000 through a fundraising campaign.
"Please help us support our board members who want to keep driving innovation and moving things forward," the fundraiser description says.
Candidates for state school board debate are scheduled to debate in a series of forums around the state. The next debate will be held Thursday at 6:30 at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Provo.