Utah plans to appeal judge's ruling, but this year’s school board elections will be nonpartisan

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A sign points to a vote center located in Trolley Square, Salt Lake City, Tuesday August 11, 2015.

The Utah Board of Education will remain nonpartisan, at least for the next two years.

Following a recent court ruling, the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office confirmed Wednesday that November’s state school board elections will follow a nonpartisan format.

“All candidates who declare will be placed on the primary, with the top two going to the general election,” said Kirsten Rappeleye, the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff.

Elections for state school board are held every two years and were scheduled to become partisan in 2018, following a change to state law in 2016.

But last month, 3rd District Court Judge Andrew Stone ruled the state’s election method violates the state constitution’s prohibition on “partisan tests” as a qualification for employment in public education.

Utah Constitution Article X, Section 8<br>No religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment, admission, or attendance in the state’s education systems.

In his ruling, Stone wrote the constitution’s plain language suggests school board elections are intended to operate independent of partisan politics.

“There is perhaps no more partisan a test than a contested, partisan election,” Stone wrote.

Rappeleye said the lieutenant governor intends to appeal Stone’s ruling. But with the election only months away, and with partisan candidates currently filing their intent to gather signatures to qualify for primaries, elections administrators are moving forward with a nonpartisan structure for state school board.

Stone’s ruling led to a change of plans for at least one school board incumbent. Terryl Warner, currently the longest-serving member on the Utah Board of Education, had been weighing whether or not to run again due to her work as a victim advocate in the Cache County Attorney’s Office.

Warner’s position is funded in part by federal grant money. And before Stone’s ruling, it was unclear whether she could legally participate in the 2018 elections due to the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employs from holding partisan office.

“I wanted to see what the ruling was,” she said. “But now that I know for sure that this is going to be nonpartisan, yeah, I’m going to run.”

Prior to 2016, school board candidates were screened by a nominating committee and placed on the ballot by the governor. That system, like the current law, was struck down in court.

Several legislative attempts to update the election process ended in stalemate between the House and Senate. But as the 2016 election neared without a valid law in place, lawmakers reached a compromise to allow nonpartisan elections to go forward that year before shifting to a partisan format in 2018.

Proponents of partisan elections argued that party mechanisms were needed to adequately vet school board candidates.

Josh Kanter, chairman of the Alliance for a Better Utah Education Fund, said in a prepared statement that the court’s orders were a great way to begin the new year.

“As this election year picks up steam, it should be a relief to Utah’s voters to know that our state school board elections will remain nonpartisan,” he said, “insulating our children's education from the extreme partisanship gripping other elections.”