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Utah’s partisan school board elections are unconstitutional and exclusionary, advocates say. Now they're suing

First Published      Last Updated Jun 27 2017 11:08 pm


School board races are nonparty affairs, but a 2016 law is set to change that next year.

A group of education-focused Utahns on Tuesday asked a state judge to toss out the 2016 law that requires partisan elections for the Utah State Board of Education on the grounds that it violates the state Constitution.

Set to take effect in 2018, SB78 violates the Utah Constitution's ban on partisan tests or qualifications as a condition of employment in Utah schools and the principle of "one man, one vote," the complaint filed in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court asserts.

The lawsuit also seeks an injunction to halt the implementation, enforcement and administration of the law by the state elections office.




At its core, the lawsuit contends that partisan elections will lead to an educational system that is driven by a single, political ideology that will influence curriculum and policy in state schools.

"Our children should be taught how to think, not what to think," Sheryl Allen, a former state representative from Davis County and vice chairwoman of Utahns for Public Schools, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The education advocacy group is named as a plaintiff in the case, along with Utah's Parent Teacher Association; Alliance for a Better Utah Education Fund; Carol Lear, a current state schools board member; and three other individuals who plan to run for school board seats.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is named as a defendant. His office oversees state elections and SB78 enacted changes to election law.

Mark Thomas, a chief deputy to Cox and the director of elections, said his office had not seen the lawsuit Tuesday and could not comment.

According to the lawsuit, SB78, presents multiple challenges for individuals seeking positions on the state board. Three intended candidates would all have to declare an affiliation with a political party. All three are averse to such declarations as a matters of privacy and conscience. One candidate, a federal employee, is also barred from seeking a partisan state position under the federal Hatch Act, the lawsuit states.

Lear was elected to the board in 2016 in a nonpartisan election and wants to run again. But a switch to a partisan board create an impossible situation, because some members would "owe their fealty to a political party," setting up a conflict with nonpartisan members," court papers said.

Plaintiffs fear that the heavily one-sided nature of Utah's political landscape would make it difficult to win a board seat.

SB78 prevents "nearly 40 percent of Utah voters, who eschew affiliation with a political party, from the civil opportunity of serving on the board, unless they override their conscience in order to run as a party partisan," the lawsuit states. "Until passage of SB78, that conviction of conscience, as a constitutionally protected right, had been deemed inviolate."

Utah's history of seating a nonpartisan school board dates back to the state's founding, the lawsuit states. Then only the state schools superintendent was elected to office and the board was appointed.

In 1950, however, voters amended Utah's Constitution to end the practice of electing a superintendent, removing partisan politics from education administration. A 1986 amendment broadened the prohibition, court papers say.

Those constitutional provisions should ensure that board elections are never conducted on a partisan basis, the lawsuit states.

The court can decide the lawsuit by considering only the argument against partisanship, the plaintiff's attorney David Irvine said.

If a ruling favors SB78, however, then the lawsuit asks a judge to decide whether the law's partisan requirement forces candidates into the caucus and convention system, which distorts the principle of voter equalization outlined in the state Constitution.

"One person, one vote has been carefully crafted and tended for more than 50 years in Utah to ensure that no vote dilution occurs at any level in state elections," the lawsuit states.

Breck England, who successfully sued Utah in 2014 over its use of a nominating board that blocked his bid for the state school board, said everyone in Utah understands that caucuses tightly control which candidates run for offices. England said SB78 was a response to his lawsuit and an effort to ensure that a small group of people who "want to control the education of your children and want to control their minds," can retain their power.

"There is no such thing as Democratic mathematics, English or science and there is no such thing as Republican mathematics, English or science," England, a Utahns for Public Schools board member, said Tuesday. "But there will be if this law is not overturned."

 

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