Herbert backs Dabakis’ plan to eliminate the state school board

Can it be that the most liberal member of the Utah Senate, Sen. Jim Dabakis, is the architect of the most radical reform in Utah public education since statehood?


Tuesday, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert – saying he and Dabakis agree on little – came out “100 percent” in support of Dabakis’ SJR16.

That is a state constitutional amendment that would – if passed by the Legislature and approved by voters this November – do away with the State Board of Education in favor of a governor-appointed superintendent of schools.

“Jim and I don’t agree on a lot,” Herbert told the media Tuesday afternoon.

“But in this part, he is right on.”

Herbert said the governor needs the ability to shape public education policy.

And with a 15-member elected state board now, the governor has little say in education beyond advocating for lawmakers in budgeting for public schools.

“I’m limited by the (state) Constitution,” said Herbert.

Yet, by far, he is asked by citizens time and again what he is doing to help or reform public schools.

The idea of “giving the governor more authority is a good one,” said Herbert.

Utah’s current election process for the state board is a troubled one.

Several decades ago, a number of politically radical people got elected to the board – which was then a nonpartisan election that draws a number of candidates but gets little media attention.

In short, some weirdos got elected.

So, the Legislature changed the way the board was elected – setting up citizen screening commissions that reviewed the candidates and recommended to the governor a few from each of the geographic districts.

Herbert would then put a couple on the ballot from which voters would choose. The process, on occasion, resulted in a sitting member of the board – elected by the people – being kicked off because they didn’t get through the screening process for any number of reasons.

A group sued. And the Utah Supreme Court said the screening process was illegal.

Lawmakers couldn’t decide how to fix it.

Finally, the GOP-controlled Legislature made state board elections partisan – so voters, who didn’t know the candidates, could pick the GOP or Democratic candidate and then partisan politics could play in education governance.

Some more people sued.

Well, just the other day, 22 senators passed Dabakis’ SJR16.

The bill says the governor appoints the superintendent, but the state Senate confirms.

So at least senators will get a say in how the reformed public education governance is handled.

House members don’t.

The resolution now sits in the House.

If 50 House members – the required two-thirds for a constitutional amendment – agree, then the measure will go on the November ballot for voter ratification or rejection.

The amendment was changed so that, if approved, it will take effect Jan. 1, 2020, not the original Jan. 1, 2019.

That would give Herbert more time to find a candidate for the new superintendent position and the current board more time to work through any required transition.

While doing away with the board may be a bit tricky for Democrats – at least under the current system they may get a few liberal board members – the governor, most likely a Republican, will be held accountable for overall public school policy.

And depending on how that plays out politically, that could be a good or bad thing for the minority voice in Utah.