Poll: Utahns Want Non-Partisan Elections for State School Board (Updated)

Most Utahns want to pick the current 15 members of the State School Board by non-partisan elections, a new UtahPolicy poll finds.

But while 56 percent of Utahns favor such a non-partisan process for the board that runs public education in the state, the view among GOP legislators, as measured by various interviews, seems to favor a partisan elected state board.

UtahPolicy had pollster Dan Jones & Associates ask in a recent statewide survey: “How do you think members of the State Board of Education should be selected?”

Fifty-six percent said through a non-partisan election, where no political parties accompany the candidates’ names on the ballots.

Twenty-seven percent said through a partisan election, where candidates represent the political parties who nominate them.

And 12 percent said the governor should appoint State School Board members, with the state Senate confirming them. Five percent didn’t know.

Jones polled 606 adults Feb. 2-9, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percent.

UtahPolicy has also been asking various members of the Legislature, and their elected leaders, how they personally prefer State School Board members should be picked. And we find through this unscientific poll that many of the GOP lawmakers favor partisan elections, and many of the Democrats favor a non-partisan election.

A judge recently ruled that in the cases of three State School Board candidates the current selection process is unconstitutional.

Currently, a statewide selection commission interviews those who have filed for a state board office (broken out by 15 geographic districts), the commission sends several names up to the governor (including incumbent board members), the governor picks two to go on the general election ballot, and citizens then pick via the most votes who fills that state board seat.

Currently, candidates are non-partisan; they don’t represent any political party. However, often the candidates let it be known through their campaigning whether they are Democrats, Republicans or belong to no political party.

Legislative GOP leaders have told their caucuses that because of the judge’s ruling, something must be done about how State Board of Education members are selected this session – as it may be too late for the 2016 Legislature to pick an election method for state board candidates that election year.

Jones found that even among GOP poll respondents the non-partisan elected option is the most favored:

— 48 percent of Republicans favor a non-partisan election from voters, 34 percent favor a partisan elected state board, and 13 percent favor the governor appointing State School Board members, with confirmation by the state Senate.

— 71 percent of Democrats favor a non-partisan state board, 19 percent favor partisan elections and 5 percent favor the governor appointing and Senate confirming.

— Among political independents – who don’t belong to any political party – 60 percent favor a non-partisan State School Board election, 19 percent like a partisan election, and 15 percent favor the governor appointing and the Senate confirming.

Not surprisingly, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert likes the governor appointing and Senate confirming.

This is how the current Board of Regents – who oversees the state’s public colleges and universities – is chosen.

Here are the bills filed so far in the 2015 Legislature:

— SB104, Sen. Alan Jackson, R-Orem, would make all State School Board and the 41 local school district boards chosen in partisan elections.

— SB195, Sen. Ann Milner, R-Ogden, would make the 2016 state board elections partisan, and all further selections appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate. She would reduce the number of state board members after the 2021 redistricting.

— HB305 and HJR16, Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, would make the 2016 state board elections partisan and after governor would appoint and the Senate would confirm. He would reduce the number of state board members after the 2021 redistricting.

— HB297, Rep. Norman Thurston, R-Provo, would make local school board members, by district, vote in state board members from their own districts.

— HB342, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, would change how state board members would be picked, saying only local school board members could file for the state board office, with citizens voting on those candidates in a nonpartisan election.

— HB186, Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, would have nonpartisan election of State School Board members.

UtahPolicy Daily did not include a response in its poll question similar to Thurston’s alternative of having the State School Board members elected from local school board members.

His bill was introduced Feb. 10, and that option was not public at the time the poll questions were picked by Jones and UPD editors.

So, a member of House GOP leadership, Gibson, who is the majority whip, is sponsoring the non-partisan election state board option – which most Utahns prefer.

One would think that option would be given a leg up in the House – where Republicans rule 63-12.

However, Gibson told his caucus that he is not wedded to the non-partisan option. And, in fact, Gibson has voted for a partisan state school election in the past.

“But the partisan option has never passed the Legislature before,” Gibson said.

However, those partisan-elected state board bills came before a judge ruled the current election process unconstitutional.

And so there was no real pressure to change from the current bifurcated governor-select/voter pick process.

There is another consideration, not yet fully dealt with in the Legislature: The Utah Constitution, while calling for a State School Board to oversee all public education in the state, says that such education shall be “free from sectarian control.”

And “sectarian” is defined as “relating to religious or political sects and the differences between them.”

Thus some believe that having a partisan elected State School Board could itself violate the Utah Constitution.

Finally there is the political reality of Utah. It is a heavily Republican state.

Previous polls have shown that few Utah voters can name their Utah House or Senate member. Thus, having an “R” by your name on the ballot helps in many elections where the candidates are not personally known by the voters.

Currently there are 29 state senators and only 15 State School Board members – so each school board district is twice as large in population as a state Senate seat.

And State School Board candidates are less known than are Senate candidates, historically spending less money in election than a state senator.

Thus, say advocates of the partisan-elected school board, it is important for political parties to vet candidates in such an unknown election.

On the other side, advocates of the non-partisan state elected board say it would be wrong to have an “R” by a board candidate’s name, for he or she will win almost automatically – the electorate not taking the time to learn about the candidates, just picking the Republican.

The latter argument is also made by those in favor of the governor picking State School Board nominees, with the Senate confirming them.

That would lead to high-quality public school governance that is seen today, they say, in the Board of Regents, which runs the state’s colleges and universities.