Bob Bernick’s Notebook: State School Board Elections Now Partisan Affairs

bernick mugWhy put off a political fight for two years when you can have it now?

The party partisan battle within the 15-member Utah State Board of Education was scheduled to start in 2018, when for the first time candidates would run under political banners – Democrats vs. Republicans.

The 2016 eight school board district races were supposed to be non-partisan – no political party stuff involved.

But that ended this week when Republican leaders in the state House and Senate got involved backing several candidates (likely Republicans) against those candidates supported by the Utah Education Association, the main teachers union in the state.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, were the main speakers at a hastily organized fund-raiser for several PACs aimed at raising money for non-UEA-backed school board candidates.

The fundraising may or may not result in anti-teacher-union candidates sitting on the board, nor pro-UEA members of the council running the primary public education policy-making body.

But certainly, that’s the appearance, if not the fact.

And, of course, this year’s state board elections are now partisan two years before would have naturally happened.

Good or bad, the future of partisan public school governance is here.

I’ve reported on and watched legislative and U.S. House redistricting since 1981.

And I can tell you that care over redrawing the nonpartisan 15 state board districts took a definite backseat to U.S. House and state House and Senate district redrawing.

In those processes, I’ve seen the GOP majority in the Legislature carefully drawing their Republican colleague’s district boundaries to better ensure their survival – and with an eye to keeping their majority status.

Two times GOP leaders tried to redraw then-Democratic U.S. House Rep. Jim Matheson out of office, finally succeeding in getting him to retire in 2014.

Perhaps a dozen Democratic-held Utah House seats were put into play in the last two redistricting, half a dozen state Senate seats.

Come 2021’s redistricting, we’ll now see the GOP legislative majority redrawing the 15 state school board districts with an eye to protecting GOP board members, harming any Democratic members.

(It could turn out that there will be no declared Democratic sitting school board members come 2022 elections, anyway.)

It’s true that polling shows few Utahns can name their state school board member.

But it’s also true voters can’t name their state senator or House member, either.

In such cases, if one is a staunch Republican, it gives solace to a voter to pick a state Senate or House candidate by political party.

After all, the Legislature is supposed to make budgets and laws along the basic lines of the majority party’s standards.

But what are the partisan politics of public education?

Do we oppose the UEA’s desires for better pay for teachers and smaller classroom sizes along Republican philosophical lines?

Already we’ve seen GOP lawmakers reach their hands into classrooms – demanding various kinds of schooling, from abstinence-based sex education to firearm safety.

I don’t know if a partisan-elected state school board will bring better education to our children or not.

But how we’re seeing the 2016 board elections already drawing partisan lines – and putting on labels – among the candidates is a foreshadowing of what is to come.