Senate Committee Advances Non-Partisan School Board Election Bill

A Senate committee advanced a bill that could set up a showdown over how members of the State School Board are elected.

The Senate Education Committee advanced HB186, which provides for non-partisan elections. A competing bill, SB195, pushing for partisan elections is winding its way through the Utah House.
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, sponsor of the non-partisan election bill, says his bill requires any potential candidate to get 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
"Is 2,000 signatures a pain?" he said. "Absolutely. It's a high enough bar that you have to make an effort to get on the ballot."
Last year a federal judge ruled Utah's process for putting school board candidates on the ballot was unconstitutional. Ideas being floated on the Hill include non-partisan elections, partisan elections or a system where the governor appoints members of the board with Senate confirmation.
A February survey found 56% of Utahns favor non-partisan elections while just 27% prefer that the elections be partisan affairs.
Chase Clyde with the Utah Education Association says HB186 is directly in line with public opinion.
"This is where the public is on this," he says. "The one thing you have to consider is the #1 issue for the public is education. Education issues are not partisan issues. These candidates should not be focused on party platforms."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, worried the method for getting on the ballot in the bill could set up a system where an unwieldy number of candidates could get on the ballot. That could potentially give the win to someone with a small plurality.  In that case, HB186 would send the top-two signature gatherers to a primary election.
Gibson says that's certainly possible, but he thinks the 2,000 signature threshold is a failsafe measure.
"I don't know if 18 people would go and get 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot. It's possible, but not probable."
With two polar opposite measures for electing board members still alive on the Hill, it's difficult to say what will happen in the final few days of the session. Senate Republicans favor partisan elections while the House is behind the non-partisan route.
"I'm keenly aware of what the Senate likes and you should be aware of what the House likes," said Gibson. "I'm grateful we have both sides up here. Sometimes we protect each other from ourselves."
Lawmakers do have the luxury of waiting until next year before taking action on this issue. The next round of school board elections aren't until 2016, and any action they take would be before candidates need to file for that contest.