Salt Lake City School District rivals from 2004 in another showdown
Eight years ago Alama Uluave faced Michael Clara for a seat on the Salt Lake City School District board. Uluave beat Clara by a single vote, earning him a spot representing the city's west-side neighborhoods and the designation as the board's only minority member.
Now, the two rematch in an election that will prove who constituents think will be the best representative on the board that makes decisions affecting the district, which is home to 23,920 students.
After a redistricting process that extended two Salt Lake City school board district boundaries into the west side, four seats are up for election on Nov. 6. District 1 and District 2 (both on the west side) are on the ballot along with District 7 and newly extended District 5.
Two of the city's seven school district boundaries were recently stretched into west-side neighborhoods as part of the redistricting mandated by the 2010 census. That means residents spanning Glendale to Rose Park now have a shot at four west-side seats, although only two will be on the ballot for this year's election.
In District 1, incumbent Amanda Thorderson from Rose Park is competing against Fairpark activist Tiffany Sandberg. The challenger is a graduate of the West Side Leadership Institute and a prominent voice in pushing for the new North Temple viaduct.
In newly realigned District 5, Glendale's Billy Palmer, who has children at Whittier Elementary, will attempt to unseat board Vice President Heather Bennett, who lives near 9th and 9th on the east side.
In District 7, after Eliot Sykes, who helped to develop the new school board map, withdrew from the race, President Kristi Swett continues in the election unchallenged.
Among the races closely watched is the one between Clara and Uluave in District 2.
If elected, Clara said his top priority will be creating shared governance within the district. That means encouraging teacher and parent councils to get involved with decision making at the local level and then collaborating with the school board after that.
Democracy can and should happen in the school district, Clara said, and tension is good. Tension doesn't mean fighting and bickering, but, rather, disagreeing and discussing.
"Tension is healthy. Between school board and superintendent, school board and local schools. That's part of democracy, and I don't shy away from that," he said. "If the parents and the teachers disagree, that's OK, let's vote on it," he said, referring to the ability of all schools to form school community councils and school improvement councils.
Uluave said he's also concerned about a lack of collaboration within the district but said he feels the responsibility to communicate should fall on those at the top.
Uluave, who has served on the board for the past two terms, said his priority will be fostering a sense of accountability within the school board and the district. He said that the district is reluctant to share negative information with the community.
"The transparency is skewed. They let us know just enough to keep everything hunky dory," said Uluave, adding, "when 60 percent of Hispanic students fail to graduate, I'm up in arms."
According to data from the Utah State Office of Education, in 2011 the district graduated 62 percent of all of its four-year students, 48 percent of its Hispanic and Latino students and 53 percent of its students who are designated as low-income.
In 2011, more than half of the district's student population were minorities. That's why, Uluave said, the most important issue the district faces is finding a way to be inclusive and cater to all students' individual needs.
"Getting [minorities] included in the system is always a challenge," Uluave said. "It takes personal understanding and [there are] legitimate needs."
Uluave said if he is re-elected he will continue to be the voice for the underrepresented.
"It's not a small deal," he said. "I know my community well. They're proud of the fact that one of our own is [on the board]."
Equal and fair representation is important to Clara as well.
In 2009, he filed a complaint that caused the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights to investigate undue segregation in one of the district's middle schools. Clara's campaign has been endorsed by Equality Utah, and after some controversy concerning the district's gender identity policy in 2010, he said, "I would support a policy that would ban anti-gay discrimination."
Clara said that on issues like these his opponent is "nice," but "I'm more of a fighter."
Uluave said he fights hard.
"[Constituents] know darn well I don't mess around â¦ I'm ready to call anyone on the district. I'm not part of the inner system. I'm an outsider. I get pushed around and banged around a lot," he said.
Uluave calls himself an "outsider" because he's a minority who never received a college diploma, he said, which automatically sets him apart from the board but at the same time adheres him to his constituency.
Uluave worked in maintenance and security at the University of Utah for 20 years, and he has put his seven children through the Salt Lake school system while living just below the poverty line. He said his claim to fame is the investment he has put in his children's education.
"I have never missed a parent teacher conference for 13 years with any of my kids," he said.
Two of his daughters received the Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship, which has paid for their college. He'll have two kids that are doctoral candidates within the next five years, he said.
Clara's passion lies in community activism. He's worked as the commissioner for the Salt Lake City Housing Authority, along with serving on a variety of advisory committees, community councils and educational committees. He also worked on Mayor Ralph Becker's task force on gang violence.
Salt Lake City Board of Education candidates
SLC School Board 1
Amanda Thorderson (incumbent)
SLC School Board 2
Alama Uluave (incumbent)
SLC School Board 5
Heather Bennett (incumbent, current VP)
SLC School Board 7
Kristi Swett (incumbent, current president, unchallenged)