Proposal would let voters decide if state school board members are elected or appointed


Utah Board of Education

For the first time this year the 15-member Utah State School Board is going to be elected in a partisan manner — Republicans and Democratic party officials, or party primary voters, will pick nominees, who face off in the November election.

But Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt, thinks there is a better way, and she has introduced HJR13, a constitutional amendment, to allow voters to decide whether the board should be elected or appointed.

The idea is that board members should be appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, much as state judges, and any number of top state executives, are picked now.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has asked for the change, but it’s unclear if his own party members in the House and Senate will give it to him.

The history of picking state School Board members is long, tangled and even schizophrenic.

Ballard addressed an open Utah House GOP caucus Thursday afternoon making her case.

Ballard, whose mother served on the board and at one time was chairwoman, said since 1950 the Legislature has changed 19 times how the 15 members have been picked.

2020 will be the first time, however, that political parties will pick the nominees — something that is fraught with concern because the governance of public education is not really a partisan issue.

But there seemed little enthusiasm inside the GOP caucus to make another change now — especially this year will be the first partisan test for School Board candidates and Republican lawmakers may like that they can ensure conservatives are on future boards.

In this budget addresses, Herbert — who is not running for re-election this year — said his main budget priorities year after year is public education funding.

But the governor — like the Legislature — really doesn’t set public education policy — they just have to appropriate billions of taxpayers’ dollars.

Herbert, who actually has no real power over education policy, said the governor is always blamed when something goes wrong in public ed, gets very little credit when things go right.

But with a 15-member board and a board appointed Superintendent of Public Education, really running the policy and spending show, Herbert says, there is often confusing public education policy and administration.

Besides the state board, there are 41 local school districts, with their elected boards, making coordination — and more important — accountability, in question.

The governor appoints, with Senate confirmation, the Board of Regents, which oversees public colleges and universities, and each institutions boards of trustees.

And many feel the governance of higher education functions much better than that of public education.

Ballard said in reality, because there is such turnover via resignations on the state board, that to some extent the governor and Senate are picking the board members now.

But that is management by default.

“Who is really in charge of K-12?” Ballard asked.

Shouldn’t it be the governor, who is responsible to voters every four years. And an identifiable individual, not a 15-member board no one knows.

Her change comes up in the House Education Committee next week.