Republican resolution aims for partisan Utah school boards
Even without a change to state law, resolution seeks online Republican vetting of candidates.
Published: April 22, 2014 10:52AM
Updated: April 22, 2014 11:16AM

Republican delegates are slated to consider a resolution at the party’s convention Saturday calling on legislators to change state law to make all school board races partisan.

However, it also encourages the Republican Party — regardless of whether the law changes — to hold school board candidate debates and straw polls among delegates about specific candidates. The results of the straw polls would be published online.

“If we can’t have partisan elections, then we should at least allow for the delegates who’ve been elected locally to vet the candidates and have some kind of a forum for them to do that and say here are people who’ve looked into these candidates,” said Oak Norton, the delegate who’s sponsoring the resolution.

Norton said the current system of electing school board members is broken, and making state and district races partisan would help to better inform voters.

“In general, the voting public has no clue who is running for school boards because they’re not partisan, they’re not publicized well,” he said, “so whoever’s got the most money and backing tends to win.”

The resolution would have to win a majority vote to pass.

But some public education leaders who oppose the resolution are already working to defeat it, asking people to contact their delegates.

“When you go to partisan, you just invite decisions made on a political basis rather than decisions based on the good of the children,” said Kim Burningham, a state school board member and former Republican lawmaker and delegate.

Burningham emailed an alert about the resolution Monday as well as posting a blog entry at utahpubliceducation.org.

He said though the resolution doesn’t carry the weight of law, it’s still important that it doesn’t pass at the convention.

“There’s a tendency for when they get the power of the Republican convention to support it, for it to at least be taken more seriously by some of the legislators,” Burningham said.

Lawmakers already defeated a bill this past legislative session, HB228, that would have made the state school board election partisan.

Norton said he decided to run the resolution despite the bill’s failure to see where delegates stand on the issue. Attempts to reach bill sponsor Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, for comment Monday were unsuccessful

Patti Harrington, with the Utah School Boards Association, also wants to see the resolution fail. She said she worries that if the races become partisan, candidates will have to align with a party to be elected.

“I don’t think most Utahns would like party leaders to be in charge of their schools,” Harrington said. “Great board members always are doing things in the best interest of the children in their schools, and that should be the bottom line of how we elect board members.”

She said political parties are not the only ones with power to get the word out about candidates, noting especially the rise of social media.

She said she also worries the resolution is just another way to “perpetuate false information about the Common Core.” The Common Core is a set of academic standards, outlining what students should know in each grade, that have been adopted by Utah and most other states.

Advocates of the Core argue it will better prepare kids for college and careers while opponents worry it takes away local control.

Part of the resolution to be presented Saturday states, “Whereas, in Texas — where school board elections are partisan — when ‘Common Core’ was presented to the states, Texas rejected it and created their own high-quality standards ...”

Norton, however, said state education leaders are the ones spreading misinformation about the Common Core. Norton is active with the group Utahns Against Common Core.

The resolution also states, “most school board members seem to welcome federal control of education, and fail to understand that states are (or should be) sovereign with respect to education.”

It’s a statement to which Burningham takes exception, saying local control is at the heart of school boards.

The resolution goes on to say, “choosing school board members via partisan election is not about partisanship in education, but is about ensuring the selection of candidates whose principles match those found in the party platform.”

lschencker@sltrib.com