Robert Gehrke: The Supreme Court was probably right about partisan school board races, but here’s why it’s bad for the rest of us

Robert Gehrke

Last week, the Utah Supreme Court had the last word on a power struggle that has unfolded over several years, with profound consequences for our children’s education.

Should candidates for school board run on their own merits, without party brands? Or, as members of the Republican Legislature contend, are people too ill-informed to be trusted to make good decisions about the people who set statewide education policy without a little visual cue?

It appears the Legislature has prevailed, as the court ruled that Utah’s Constitution doesn’t prohibit partisan school board races, meaning next year candidates will run with an “R” or a “D” (or whatever letter the United Utah Party uses) by their name.

It’s a bad policy, a power grab that puts political tribalism ahead of ensuring our children receive the best education possible. And, unfortunately, the court probably made the right call.

At issue was the language of Utah’s Constitution: “No religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment … in the state’s education systems,” and, more specifically, what is meant by “employment”?

Obviously, someone who is being hired to be a teacher or an administrator can’t be denied a job because of religion or partisan allegiance. But are school board members employees of the state education system?

The Internal Revenue Service, for example, considers elected officials — like school board members — to be employees. In Utah, school board members receive paychecks and get state health benefits. But those are really just administrative functions. Someone has to cut the checks and it makes sense it would be the state.

On the flip side, however, the Civil Rights Act specifically excludes elected officials from the definition of employees as does federal labor law.

School board members have no supervisor. They cannot be disciplined by the human resources director. The only people who can “fire” a board member are the voters at the ballot box or legislators through impeachment. And if, say, a state school board member is impeached, he or she couldn’t file a wrongful termination claim or collect unemployment benefits.

They are not, then, employees in a traditional sense.

The court’s ruling, while legally correct, legitimizes a terrible policy that could reshape what Utah kids will (or won’t) learn in the classroom.

Just in the past few years, board members have waded into debates over science curriculum that dismisses climate change and evolution, they set policy on parents opting out of vaccinating their kids, they have catered to charter schools and home schooling, and they have railed against the dreaded Common Core.

Last week, members of the Utah Eagle Forum and others turned out in large numbers to protest proposed changes that would give teachers slightly more latitude in the sex ed curriculum, just a few days before it was reported that in conservative Utah County there were more reported cases of chlamydia last year than the flu.

Sometimes reason prevails, but not without a fight — and the fight will only become more difficult.

Before, board candidates had to try to get a broad pool of voters to listen to them on the issues. No more. Now they just have to convince the Republican delegates — who will likely end up picking the nominees — that they are ideologically pure.

Where once candidates could argue their only interest was doing what is best for school children, now they will have to pledge allegiance to Utah’s dominant party.

The Supreme Court recognized the decision was a political one and didn’t want to touch it.

“The question before us is not whether [a partisan school board] is good public policy: That’s a question for the citizens of Utah, speaking through their duly elected representatives,” the majority wrote.

The problem is that the fix to this mess now relies on voters — the same people who legislators decided weren’t smart enough to elect a school board without a partisan crutch.

Next year, we should prove them wrong by doing the homework necessary to pick the best school board candidate — regardless of party — and helping to make sure our friends and neighbors do the same.

And, while we’re at it, maybe we can prove to the Legislature we’re smarter than they gave us credit for by voting a few of them out of office, too.