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A Utah advocacy group is calling foul after an association of technology business leaders threw its support behind of slate of candidates for state school board.
The progressive-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah sent letters to members of the Utah Technology Council on Tuesday, criticizing the group's use of Utah Education Association endorsements as a litmus test for school board elections.
The letter, signed by alliance founder Josh Kanter, said it is "odious" to oppose candidates not because of a substantive policy disagreement, but solely as a result of their being supported by Utah's largest teachers union.
"We hope the UTC will consider publicly reversing its stance and will make these and future political endorsements based on research, interviews and evidence of how these candidates will impact the policies of importance to the members of the UTC and the candidates' constituents," the letter states.
Earlier this month, the Utah Technology Council sent an email to its members, encouraging support for a slate of eight candidates that included the council's president, Richard Nelson.
Nelson said the decision to support those candidates was not a formal endorsement by the Utah Technology Council, but was made by the council's Public Policy Forum.
He also said the sole determining factor for the forum's support was whether an individual's campaign had been endorsed or received support from the Utah Education Association, and that the UEA-backed candidates and the "independent" candidates should be grouped together.
Of the eight candidates supported in the technology council's email, seven are running against opponents who have received in-kind contributions from the UEA. The eighth candidate was Stan Lockhart, a school board incumbent and member of the Utah Technology Council, whose opponent is Nebo School District teacher Scott Neilson.
On Tuesday, Nelson said Kanter's letter misrepresents the vetting process of the council's Public Policy Forum, an informal vetting group composed of business leaders and lawmakers.
"This doesn't appear to reflect us at all," Nelson said. "I don't know who Mr. Kanter or [what] Alliance for a Better Utah is."
Several school board candidates said they were surprised to receive the technology council's support, having never met with representatives of the organization, while candidates opposed by the council said they would have welcomed an opportunity to pitch their platforms.
Nelson said he was similarly caught off guard by the pushback from the Alliance for a Better Utah.
"I would love to receive a phone call from whoever is putting this out," he said. "I don't know anything about this group."
In a prepared statement, Kanter praised the role the Utah Technology Council and its members play in Utah's economy.
But he added that it is wrong for the council to vilify candidates without researching their platforms.
"It is particularly troubling because the UTC's President himself is a school board candidate," Kanter said. "We hope the UTC membership, officers, trustees and sponsors do not approve of using the UTC's position in the community to choose candidates on such a litmus test."
State school board races have generated an atypical level of attention this year, after a 2014 court ruling found Utah's candidate selection system unconstitutional, prompting lawmakers to establish direct elections for 2016.
The current nonpartisan status has generated complaints by some candidates, including Nelson and board vice-chairman Dave Thomas, that the absence of party vetting allows for groups like the UEA to play an outsize and unchecked role in promoting candidates.
Beginning in 2018, state school board elections will be partisan.
The Alliance for a Better Utah's letter also noted that the Utah Technology Council has not opposed other election candidates endorsed by the UEA, particularly Gov. Gary Herbert, for whom the teachers union spent roughly $200,000 on television ads during his primary contest against Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson, a member of the Utah Technology Council.
Herbert released his first school board endorsements last week, throwing his support behind the Utah Technology Council's Lockhart and three UEA-backed candidates: Kathleen Riebe, Erin Preston and Wesley Christiansen.