Utah Supreme Court says partisan elections for State School Board are constitutional

Utah Capitol 03

On Wednesday, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that allowing partisan elections for the State Board of Education does not violate the state constitution.

In a decision authored by Justice Himonas, the court ruled that since State Board of Education members are not employed by the state’s education system, they are not subject to a provision in the Utah Constitution prohibiting a “religious or partisan test” as a condition of employment in the state’s education systems.

In 2016, the Utah Legislature passed a bill imposing partisan elections for the state board, which were to start with the 2018 election. However, the law was delayed after the Utah PTA and current and former board members filed suit. They contended allowing partisan elections would have an undue influence on education policy in the state, which is overwhelmingly Republican.

Plaintiffs said since members of the State School Board are provided health insurance and a salary from the state, they should be considered employees.

The court disagreed that board members were employees of Utah’s public education system. The majority opinion reasoned since they have not been hired by a school or some other part of Utah’s public education system, they are not technically employees of the education system.

A Utah district court judge blocked the law in 2017, which set up Wednesday’s ruling by the Utah Supreme Court.

In a cheeky section of the majority decision, Justice Himonas declines to comment on whether adopting partisan school board elections is good public policy, quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell, I will help them. It’s my job.”

There are 15 members of the state school board who serve four-year terms. Half of the board will be up for election in 2020, which should be the first election under the new partisan law.