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Paul Rolly: School board criticism riles some Utah legislators

I struck a nerve last week when I wrote about some state school board members who meet by themselves, make decisions without the full board and create animosity within the Utah State Office of Education.

The column talked about the governor-appointed committee that interviews state board candidates and, for each district, sends three names to the governor, who whittles those hopefuls down to two for the ballot.

It noted that since voters slapped the Legislature in 2007 by repealing a voucher law giving tax credits for private-school enrollment, the nominating panel has eliminated six incumbent school board members. So those voter-elected members were not even given a chance to be on the ballot for re-election. In short, a 12-member committee determined it had the right, not voters, to remove an incumbent.

The column also pointed out that those six incumbents were cut by the nominating panel after 2007, when the school board went on record opposing vouchers and backing the referendum.

Those comments must have hit too close to home for some legislators who, along with certain school board members, have a tendency to micromanage the Office of Education and who were staunch supporters of the voucher law.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, who co-hosts a right-wing Saturday morning program called Red Meat Radio on 860 AM, took issue with my premise that the ousted incumbents were punished for opposing vouchers, a pet issue for the Draper Republican.

Stephenson, who is known for pushing private enterprise into the public education system, noted that the law specifying the nominating committee’s makeup was put in place before the 2007 voucher fiasco, so that wasn’t the motivation behind the selection reforms.

That’s true. But he omitted the fact that the governor appoints a nominating committee for each election of school board members. Because the terms of the 15-member school board are staggered, an election occurs every two years. While there certainly are holdovers on the nominating committee from election to election, the governor also appoints new members to that panel. The law designates six members from the business community and six from education circles. The business members usually are recommended by associations with a lobbying presence at the Legislature.

Stephenson was one of the strongest voices for vouchers and has pushed for more private vendors supplying educational needs. He also advocates for charter schools, which aligns him with those school board members accused of acting on their own and ignoring their colleagues.

One of the six incumbents snubbed by the committee a few years ago was Denis Morrill. When he criticized the selection process and the nominating committee was forced to reveal the vote, it showed that the business members had voted in a bloc against him.

prolly@sltrib.com

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