SALT LAKE CITY—A bill that has stalled in the Rules Committee could have an impact on how state school board elections are run in 2018. Last year, a bill passed putting into law that elections for state board members would become partisan. It allowed for one year in 2016 to be run nonpartisan, and then in 2018 the new law will take effect.
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, is sponsoring HB151 to change that law so that school board elections can stay nonpartisan. Currently the bill is being held in committee so the full legislative body can’t hear it yet.
Former representative Sheryl Allen, former Davis School District Board of Education member Barbara Smith and several other groups are calling on the public to help move it out of committee this session.
“The last election (2016) was nonpartisan and a lot of people signed up to run,” Allen said. “There were vigorous campaigns and debates throughout the state. It worked really well. If they make state board elections partisan we’re afraid they might make local board elections partisan too. Candidates shouldn’t have to worry about party politics. They need to put children first.”
Ward agrees, which is why he’s running the bill. “It’s at a gut level,” he said. “Everyone will tell you they want the children’s interests first – not the party first. The Utah State Constitution says there should be no partisan test for state employees so it is in plain language that it should not be partisan in our schools, especially in administration.”
With the new law, potential board member candidates would have to pass the party’s platform test before they can run, Ward said. “Sure we’ll still get competent people either way, but if residents think of how they want schools to be run, they’ll want it to be nonpartisan. It serves our community better. Our schools should be different.”
“I feel strongly about it,” said Smith. “I served on the Davis School Board for the last 24 years and it’s critical. Education decisions should not be forced by political agenda. It should be based on research and best practices for what’s right for children. If they have to answer to a political party it will be most difficult to do.”
Smith pointed out that during the last election, constituents were allowed to choose from among several qualified candidates. “There was a lot of interest,” she said. “In an open election they can elect quality candidates. When I was on the local board I was answerable to every taxpayer and parent in my area, not to a delegate. If it goes through a caucus system or party convention, it’s too easy to feel answerable to those who elected them.”
The goal is to bring HB151 out of committee for a public hearing, Smith said. “We believe it’s an issue that has to have public input,” she said. “We want as many people as possible to know about this issue. The vast majority of people don’t know it will change in 2018. Surveys show that 65 to 80 percent of Utahns don’t want the board to be partisan.”
Allen said the PTA, Utah School Board and other education groups are supportive of HB151, now she would just like to see the public get behind it too.
“We saw in the last election that there were many who were interested in serving,” she said. “We don’t need parties recruiting or screening them (candidates) because the public did just fine. When they (Utahns) understand it there’s going to be a lot of alarm. If it’s not broken it doesn’t need to change. Do we really want our candidates to consider party platform instead of children’s concerns?”