Proposal Would Make State Board of Education Elections Nonpartisan

A member of Utah House GOP leadership Wednesday introduced a bill that would have the State Board of Education selected in nonpartisan elections.

“This is a starting point,” said House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, of his HB186.

There are at least two other measures coming this legislative session changing how the current 15-member board is selected – one would have partisan elections, the other have the governor appoint the State Board of Education with confirmation by the Senate.

The later is SJR5 sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden.

Something must be done about the current, admittedly odd, bifurcated State Board of Education selection process.

Last year a judge ruled the old method is unconstitutional. State board members are vetted by a special committee, which recommends several names in each district to the governor, who picks two for the final ballot for voters to decide.

Gibson said over the last several Legislatures bills that changed the board members’ election process to a partisan vote have all failed.

“I voted for some of those bills. But they couldn’t get enough votes,” Gibson told UtahPolicy.

“Maybe my (nonpartisan) bill can.”

In various forms, state Republican Party loyalists have said several times they favor a partisan process in electing State Board of Education members.

Utah’s Constitution says the state must have an independent board overseeing public schools in the state.

The Constitution also says no political, religious or other test may be used in picking that governing body – leading some to say it would be illegal to have partisan elected State School Board members.

Gibson isn’t necessarily looking at the Constitution, however, but at practical politics – getting enough votes in the Utah House and Senate to get any change passed.

A court has spoken, said Gibson. So something must be done about the current illegal selection process.

He doesn’t favor a bill that would let the governor appoint the State School Board, as he does today with the State Board of Regents, which oversees Utah’s public colleges and universities.

Many of his GOP friends, said Gibson, who want State Board of Education candidates to be vetted through political parties don’t realize is the impact SB54 would have on that process.

By far most Utahns are Republicans. So it makes sense that if a partisan process were adopted, most of the 15 state board members would be Republicans, chosen for the most part by voters and/or party delegates.

But, points out Gibson, make the state board partisan elected and that throws it under SB54 election rules.

And that new law says that party candidates can take several routes to the party primary – go through the old caucus/convention system and be voted on by party convention delegates OR collect a certain number of voter signatures and go directly to the primary ballot OR pick both routes at the same time.

Republican Party loyalists who favor changing the state board elections to make candidates be partisan think delegates will get to vote on those candidates.

Not necessarily so, says Gibson.

You could have “partisan” state board candidates who don’t appear before delegates at all, but rather go directly to the party primary ballot via voter signatures.

  Gibson says a better alternative is just to make state board elections nonpartisan – and put on other good things through HB186.

  At least under his bill he requires a “more open, more inclusive” candidate petition-gathering process.

  HB186 says, for example, that if you are running for a State Board of Education seat which geographically includes two or more local school district boundaries, then you have to get at least 300 out of the required 2,000 of your signatures in each of those school districts.

  That ensures, says Gibson, a more fair-minded candidate – one who doesn’t “hog” all of his voters signatures in one school district, and so plays favorites with that district while in office.

  Gibson’s bill requires each State School Board candidate to get at least 2,000 signatures.

  “Those would be 2,000 more people the candidate talks to now (under the old system) – I don’t see many” voters really getting to know their state board candidates.

  And HB186 could block the movement to have the governor appoint state board members – an alternative a number of legislators, especially some conservative legislators, don’t like, he believes.