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Students who visit Utah's Capitol during the legislative session get a civics lesson on state history and government, and, for at least one group of Utah County fifth-graders, a front-row view to rancorous politics.
That's what Jenna Wood described in a letter to Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, after witnessing an "agitated" Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, threatening to sue Alpine School District administrators during a Feb. 24 confrontation in the Capitol Rotunda with several of her daughter's Foothill Elementary School classmates nearby.
"It was evident that he was verbally attacking them," Wood wrote. "His voice was loud, and his mannerisms were aggressive."
In a separate letter, Alpine Superintendent Sam Jarman complained about the incident and alluded to other confrontations with Stephenson, noting that the Feb. 24 meeting was notable for occurring in a public place.
"I feel like Senator Stephenson used threatening and bullying tactics to try and force his will on [School Board Vice President] JoDee [Sundberg], others and me," Jarman wrote. "It is time to take action against his poor behavior since this time it was in front of many kids and adults!"
The letters were obtained by The Tribune through an open-records request.
Niederhauser said Tuesday he had met with Stephenson to discuss the complaints from Alpine School District.
"Senator Stephenson is a zealous education reformer," Niederhauser said. "In our discussion of recent complaints, I encouraged him to continue to work on the issues but be more aware of how he comes across to others."
Stephenson was unavailable for comment Monday and Tuesday, but in his own letter to Niederhauser, the longtime senator said he had been "energized" by a separate discussion with a school administrator and quickly apologized for interrupting the Alpine group's attention to their visiting students.
A state school board member and lobbyist who said he observed the incident wrote to the Senate president that Stephenson throughout appeared to remain "calm."
"I did not view any behavior from Senator Stephenson that was inappropriate," wrote Spencer Stokes.
According to Wood's account, Stephenson approached Superintendent Jarman and Sundberg and began arguing not far from the fifth-grade group.
"I began to worry that this might be distracting or even upsetting to the children," Wood wrote, adding that she placed herself in a position to create a buffer between the students and the altercation. "When it seemed that the children were busy and focused, I came back to the front of the table and heard the Senator, now redfaced, say that he would like to file a lawsuit."
The confrontation, according to Jarman, was triggered by Alpine School District's opposition to SB80, a bill by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, that seeks to equalize funding between Utah's school districts.
Fillmore had been working with district representatives to address Alpine's concerns, Jarman said in his letter. But that didn't stop Stephenson from continuing to "berate" the Alpine group, Jarman said, including a statement that Stephenson would sue Alpine and tell school district parents that administrators were being negligent in their opposition to SB80.
Stephenson is a divisive figure in Utah's public education community. He has long advocated for reform and the proliferation of classroom technology in his role as a member and former chairman of the committee that oversees the legislative budget for public schools.
While Stephenson declined to comment to The Tribune, his own letter to Niederhauser regarding the Feb. 24 incident said his red face is always red, due to rosacea, and that he is unapologetic for his passion for promoting equitable education funding.
He said he had discussed with another district's superintendent the need to pass SB80, and the role Alpine School District could play, as the state's largest district, in encouraging support for the bill. That conversation occurred immediately prior to his encounter with the Alpine School District group.
"I had been energized by my discussion with the previous superintendent and I soon found myself pleading with Superintendent Jarman and Board Member Sundberg to stand up for their students' right to equitable funding," he wrote. "I asked them what their patrons would think if they knew their elected board would not support legislation to achieve fair funding."
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