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Syracuse • The District 4 candidates for state school board needed several rounds of rebuttals Tuesday evening as they faced off on the issue of partisan elections.
David Thomas, the board's vice chairman, opened the debate by describing himself as a "common-sense conservative." Later, he said he supported nonpartisan school board elections until the current election cycle changed his mind.
Thomas explained that's because the Utah Education Association (UEA) has been playing the part of a political party by endorsing a slate of candidates and providing large contributions to their campaigns.
"If, in fact, we're going to have that kind of partisanship in these nonpartisan races," Thomas said, "then they might as well be partisan."
But his opponent, high school teacher and UEA member Jennifer Graviet, said partisan politics injects distractions and loyalties into a board that should be focused on students.
"You really can't be beholden to an ideology or a party," Graviet said. "You're beholden to what is best for the children in our state."
In past elections, school board candidates were screened by a committee and placed on the ballot by Utah's governor. That process was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge, leading Utah lawmakers to allow for direct nonpartisan elections in 2016, followed by partisan elections beginning in 2018.
Thomas said the National Education Association (NEA) is aligned with the Democratic Party and gave money to the UEA to influence school board races in the state.
"The NEA spoke at the Democratic National Convention," Thomas said, referring to NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia's address in July. "They didn't speak at the Republican National Convention."
Graviet said the UEA, NEA and local teachers unions are composed of Republicans, Democrats and independents. But she said Republican leaders are hostile to those groups and referred to an election survey that was sent out and widely ignored by GOP candidates.
"Not a single Republican responded," Graviet said.
Thomas said Republicans had no reason to answer a survey from the left-leaning NEA.
"It was like a survey from the Democratic Party," he said.
Disclosure forms show that Graviet received a $1,000 contribution from the UEA's political action committee, as well as about $11,000 of in-kind donations in the form of mailers and digital advertising.
The UEA also endorsed the re-election campaign of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, and it spent about $200,000 on advertisements on his behalf in the lead-up to June's primary election.
Thomas is part of an informal slate of school board candidates endorsed by Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
Disclosure forms show that Thomas received $1,000 each from Niederhauser and the Hughes Leadership PAC, as well as a combined $2,800 from Layton Republican Sens. Stuart Adams and Jerry Stevenson and Reps. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Stephen Handy, R-Layton.
Tuesday's debate was the sixth in a series of eight planned events for state school board candidates and sponsored by the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, Sutherland Institute, United Way of Salt Lake, Hinckley Institute of Politics and KSL.
The final debate was scheduled for Thursday, between District 12 incumbent Dixie Allen and challenger Alisa Ellis, but it was canceled Tuesday after Allen said she was unable to participate. A seventh debate is set for Wednesday at Channing Hall in Draper, between District 10 candidates Kathleen Riebe and Gary Thompson.
Thomas and Graviet agreed on a number of issues during Tuesday's debate. Both favored reserving state income-tax funding for public education and reversing a 1996 constitutional amendment that divided Utah's Education Fund between public and higher education.
Excluding colleges and universities from the income tax likely would lead to higher tuition at state schools, Thomas said, but Utah's tuition costs are among the lowest in the nation.
"You can't build that lower tuition at the disadvantage of the public schools," Thomas said.
Thomas spoke in favor of a targeted state investment to boost entry level teaching salaries. Graviet said teachers deserve higher pay, but more than money, they need planning and preparation time to fulfill their responsibilities.
She said her classrooms include more than 200 students, which means 18 hours correcting essays at a pace of 5 minutes per assignment.
"As much as I would love to mentor a new teacher," Graviet said, "I have to take care of my own students."
A new state school board rule allows people without education degrees to work as teachers under the mentorship of a veteran colleague.
That policy, known as Academic Pathway to Teaching, or APT, requires a bachelor's degree and knowledge of a course subject. There are other alternate routes for career professionals who want to teach, Graviet said, but while those routes require varying levels of classroom training, APT opens the classroom door to unprepared educators.
"With APT, they don't have to step foot in a classroom before they come teach," Graviet said. "To me, that's experimentation."
Thomas said the policy allows experienced professionals to teach while shifting the authority in hiring decisions away from university faculty and toward local school district superintendents.
"Before, the gatekeeper was your university dean," Thomas said. "Now it's changed to more local control."