It just might be the most important race this election year that you’ve never heard of.
Eighteen candidates are vying for nine seats on the Utah State Board of Education. Whoever wins will make decisions about what’s taught in Utah classrooms, the tests students take, how teachers across the state are evaluated, which charter schools may open and a number of other far-reaching issues.
But many Utahns won’t recognize the candidates’ names or what they represent when they look at their ballots on Election Day.
“I don’t think our public really understands what the state school board does,” said Dixie L. Allen, board vice chairwoman who is running for re-election against Wendy Simmerman in District 12. “I don’t think they understand the magnitude of their responsibility.”
That doesn’t mean, however, the candidates don’t have a number of varying views when it comes to education — perspectives that could directly affect Utah kids.
For example, 15 of the candidates support teaching sex education in schools, but three do not, including District 4 candidate Bruce Davis; District 10 incumbent Dave Crandall; and District 13 incumbent C. Mark Openshaw, according to yes-or-no questionnaires they answered in April.
All but two candidates — District 12’s Allen and District 8’s Chris Williams — support some form of merit pay for educators. And all 18 candidates support the Utah Core Standards, which are based on Common Core standards in math and language arts.
When asked to name their top two education concerns many are on the same page. Fourteen of the 18 candidates cited funding-related issues.
The state school board can’t raise taxes or decide how much money to spend on schools, but they do make detailed recommendations to the governor and lawmakers each year about the state’s education budget — advocating for certain programs and needs. Utah has long had the lowest base per pupil funding in the country.
“Utah is just sadly, sadly underfunded and we have got incredible teachers and amazing schools working so hard to do a lot with very little,” said Simmerman, an academic tutoring coordinator at Utah Valley University, “but there’s only so much they can do.”
She said she’d like to see the state school board help the situation by “looking very, very carefully, for example, at the requirements we place on schools and teachers in terms of accountability for those dollars.”
Her opponent, Allen, who has served on the board for nine years and is a former teacher and school administrator, said she’d like to see lawmakers fund student-enrollment growth every year and “trust the local districts to use funding adequately and allow the state board to have policies and procedures that hold districts accountable to do the right thing.” This year, the state school board is recommending to lawmakers and the governor that enrollment growth be funded and per pupil spending boosted, among other things.
District 1 candidate D. Alan Shakespear, owner/operator of C & K Rentals LLC in Logan, farmer and former IT manager at State Office of Education, also said fully funding enrollment growth is essential.
“We need to have a funding structure in place that gets us off the bottom rung of the funding ladder,” said Shakespear, who believes his background working in education and business would make him a valuable board member.
His opponent, incumbent Tami W. Pyfer, agreed that funding is a big issue, and said part of the challenge is improving communication with lawmakers, who hold the purse strings.
“The people making decisions often don’t have a really good grasp of what it’s like in the classroom,” said Pyfer, a research coordinator at Utah State University. “I think that a lack of really good information at the legislative level is one of the top issues in education, and that trickles down to everything.”
Pyfer said she tried to visit the Capitol each week during the past legislative session, and plans to continue that if re-elected.
District 7 incumbent Leslie Brooks Castle, a nurse and curriculum consultant for The Waterford School, said she’d also like to see more funding for education and hopes to be re-elected to continue working on ways to help teachers in the classroom, such as by implementing the new Common Core standards and fighting for dollars to help reduce class sizes, increase training and put in place quality assessments.
Her opponent, Carlton A. Getz, an engineer and business founder, said he too hopes to work on implementation of Common Core standards, saying it’s important all students be expected to meet at least a minimum threshold, which can then be raised over time.
State school board candidates
District 1 • D. Alan Shakespear, owner/operator of C & K Rentals LLC in Logan, farmer, former IT manager at State Office of Education; Tami W. Pyfer (incumbent), research coordinator, clinical instructor and student teacher supervisor at Utah State University.
District 4 • Bruce Davis, Weber State University vice provost and dean of Continuing Education, board member of Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering and Science charter school; David L. Thomas, (incumbent), chief civil deputy Summit County attorney, South Weber City Council.
District 7 • Carlton A. Getz, electrical engineer, founder and managing director of Winter Harbor Advisors LLC and founder and president of Getz & Associates Inc.; Leslie Brooks Castle (incumbent), nurse, curriculum consultant for The Waterford School.
District 8 • Chris Williams, IBM Corporation client executive; Jennifer A. Johnson, founder and president Coraticum Asset Management LLC., vice president of The CFA Society of Salt Lake.
District 10 • Dave Crandall, (incumbent), chairman of Summit Academy charter school board, consultant and project manager with Spring2 Technologies; Nina Marie Welker, adjunct faculty member at Salt Lake Community College, bookkeeper at Studio Techniques Dance.
District 11 • Jefferson Moss, vice president/investment specialist at Key Private Bank; Sergio X. Vasquez, manager of laboratory operations at Numira Biosciences and application development scientist/technical director.
District 12 • Dixie L. Allen, (incumbent) retired educator from Uintah School District, state school board member since 2002; Wendy Simmerman, academic tutoring coordinator at Utah Valley University.
District 13 • Ken Parkinson, attorney and shareholder at Howard, Lewis & Petersen P.C., and board member of Freedom Academy charter school; C. Mark Openshaw, (incumbent), co-founder and president of AirComUSA, a telecommunications business.
District 15 • Barbara W. Corry, former Iron County School Board member, owner of BC Hats; Bette Oveson Arial,senior advisor at the Sutherland Institute, former state school board member.