UEA and Outside Groups are Battling Over School Board Elections

Utah State CapitolGet ready for partisan, big money, races for the Utah State School Board, as the last nonpartisan races of 2016 are already seeing long-time education factions facing off.

With a court decision declaring the old state board candidate screening process unconstitutional, the GOP-controlled Legislature struggled for several years over what to do about the 15-district board, whose voting areas are larger than a state Senate district.

A “compromise” solution was adopted by the 2016 Legislature: Have the 2016 races open to anyone who files and non-partisan, with partisan (Republican and Democrat) elections coming in 2018.

But the primary race this year caught some GOP leaders off guard, as several well-liked (at least on Capitol Hill) incumbents were beaten June 28.

And now a “last ditch” effort is being made to save a few of the other incumbents as a group of business/reform groups are looking to raise money and set up PACs to help those endangered school board members.

Over the weekend a quickly-formed school board candidate fund-raiser was put together by the Utah Technology Council, among others, with House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, called in to help raise money for some of the remaining school board incumbents feeling the heat from the Utah Education Association – the main teacher union in the state.

For Hughes it is an old battle – remember the failed private school voucher fight of 2007?

While not the same players, nor the bitter feelings and the high-profile public stand-off over vouchers, what is happening in this year’s school board races are a shadow of what could come with full-scale partisan contests in Utah’s future.

First off, you have the email that was sent out just a few days ago, which accuses “unions” of spending big money to oust incumbents:


(The network is a private business that provides online teacher improvement programs across the nation, headquartered in Salt Lake City.)

Here are the current 15 board members – half are up for election every two years. There are eight races this year.

The UEA is endorsing and helping candidates in six of those races (as seen below).

It is true that the UEA, possibly using some funds send to it by the National Education Association, has put money into candidates’ primary campaigns who they endorse.

That is not an unusual thing. The UEA has been active in Utah politics for 30 years or more – generally backing candidates who favor more money going into public education budgets.

And this year the UEA endorsed GOP Gov. Gary Herbert over Democratic candidate Mike Weinholtz.

Here are the UEA-endorsed candidates:

NOTE: Two candidates receiving the most votes face off in the General Election

  • District 4: Recommended candidate Jennifer Graviet received 34% of the primary vote and will face incumbent Dave Thomas (27%) in the general election.
  • District 7: Recommended candidate Carol Lear received 28% of the vote and will face Shelly Teuscher (16%) in the general election. (Incumbent Leslie Brooks-Castle received 14.5% of the vote and is out of office).
  • District 8: Recommended candidate Janet Cannon received 38% of the vote and will face Richard Nelson (25%) in the general election.
  • District 10: Recommended candidate Kathleen Riebe received 49% of the vote and will face Gary Thompson (26%). Incumbent Dave Crandall was barely eliminated in the primary and is out of office.
  • District 11: Recommended candidate Erin Preston received 34% of the vote and will face Lisa Cummins (41%) in the general election.
  • District 12: Recommended candidate/incumbent Dixie Allen received 45% of the vote and will face Alisa Ellis (31%) in the general election.

Graviet is a Weber School District teacher.

Preston works as an attorney in Carol Lear’s law firm.

Sources on Capitol Hill say it was the Crandall primary loss that really shook up some Republican leaders – and got them focusing on the UEA’s play in all of this.

The UEA reportedly spent around $80,000 in the primary on its endorsed candidates – and sent out mailers in some school board districts.

The UEA PAC disclosures, here, show about $11,500 to $13,000 in mailers, digital work and campaign signs for each endorsed school board candidate.

(The UEA PAC spent more than $179,000 on TV commercials and mailers for Herbert’s primary, where he easily beat conservative challenger Jonathan Johnson.)

One Capitol Hill source said if the UEA spends $10,000-$15,000 on behalf of your opponent, and you only have a few thousand dollars, “it’s a tough hill to climb.”

“We have a good relationship with the (school) board,” said another GOP source.

“We don’t want to lose that. Actually, we have a better relationship with the UEA” than in some previous years, he added, not wishing to be named for fear of harming that UEA relationship.

That’s what’s making this nonpartisan school board elections so sensitive this year – with the loss of two incumbents to UEA-backed candidates in the primary and the fear more incumbents could fall to UEA-backed candidates in the final election.

“We really don’t want this to become us (Capitol Hill GOP leaders) vs. them (the UEA). We don’t want to pick a fight,” he added.

But a fight it well may be, as GOP legislative leaders are fund-raising for candidates who are opposed by candidates backed by Utah’s largest teacher union.