An overhaul of Utah’s technical college system earned the overwhelming support of the Utah House on Wednesday, despite opposition of the bill’s one-time sponsor.

Without debate, House members voted 68-3 for HB300, which creates the nickname “UTech” for the Utah System of Technical Colleges and changes the method for selecting and removing members of the system’s Board of Trustees.

Among the three “no” votes against HB300 was Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, who took over sponsorship of the bill after the abrupt resignation of Rep. Jon Stanard earlier this month amid claims he’d hired a prostitute.

Last has since withdrawn as the House sponsor, and he said Wednesday that his opposition stemmed from a preference for local authority.

“The tech colleges need to be highly responsive to workforce needs on a local level,” Last said. “In my opinion, this bill adds an element of system control that is appropriate for higher education but not the tech colleges.”

Under HB300, members of the UTech Board of Trustees would be appointed by the governor and able to be removed for cause, similar to the membership of the Utah Board of Regents, which oversees public colleges and universities.

“This will bring us in line with our system of higher education,” said Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, the bill’s new sponsor.

Last acknowledged being unfamiliar with the specifics of HB300 during his brief sponsorship. At a hearing of the House Education Committee, he deferred questions to the Senate sponsor, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden.

“I will learn along with you so that when I get on the [House] floor, I won’t sound like a fool,” he told committee members as he deferred to Milner to answer questions on the measure.

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Creates the nickname "UTech" for the Utah System of Technical College. It also clarifies the hiring and firing of UTech campus presidents and the process for removing a UTech trustee for cause. - Read full text

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Filed Law Introduced in House House Committee House passage Senate Committee Senate passage Governor's OK

Feb. 9: Utah lawmaker’s resignation over claims he solicited sex complicates a proposed overhaul for the state’s technical colleges

A bill before the Utah Legislature to alter governance of the state’s higher education systems is intended to “harmonize” oversight of traditional colleges and universities with that of its technical colleges, says the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden.

But the background on HB300 was murky and complicated even before Tuesday’s resignation of its original sponsor, Rep. Jon Stanard, over allegations he solicited a prostitute.

Millner alluded to the situation in her pitch of the bill Thursday to the House Education Committee.

“There were some issues in the southern part of the state with one of our technical colleges,” Millner said. “As we looked at the statute, it wasn’t clear enough.”

Those issues are related — at least in part — to the January firing of Dixie Technical College president Kelle Stephens and the earlier appointment of Stephens’ son-in-law, Brecken Cox, to the Utah System of Technical Colleges board of trustees.

“The relationships weren’t made clear about there being family relationships in this case,” Millner told House colleagues.

Stephens’ firing was criticized by members of the Dixie Technical College board of directors, who had previously issued resolutions in support of the campus president.

For her part, Stephens claims her termination was the result of a campaign to discredit her by a disgruntled former employee, who used surreptitious recordings and friendships with state lawmakers to pressure Utah System of Technical Colleges administrators.

And further convoluting the picture around HB300, the measure was originally sponsored by Stanard, R-St. George, a former Dixie Tech employee who on Tuesday night abruptly resigned his seat in the Legislature — shortly before allegations were made public that he had twice solicited sex from a female escort.

(AP file photo) Utah Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George, was the original backer of a bill to overhaul governance of Utah's technical colleges, but he resigned abruptly on Tuesday — just hours before allegations were made public that he had solicited sex from a female escort.

Stephens said Friday that Stanard’s hypocrisy “knows no bounds.”

“I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I expect legislators to investigate and establish facts rather than just believe a story line promulgated by fellow legislators and education leaders,” the former Dixie Tech president said. “The irony isn’t lost on me. Former Rep. Jon Stanard was one of my active accusers.”

Millner declined to comment on Stephens’ firing, describing the termination of a campus president as a “personnel situation.”

She said it is not her intention that Stephens’ son-in-law be removed from the Utah System of Technical Colleges Board of Trustees, but added that questions surrounding his appointment highlighted the need for a process to remove a trustee, when necessary.

“All I’m doing, at this point in time, is trying to clarify statute,” Millner said. “If there were a reason to do it, how we would do it?”

Cox could not be reached for comment Friday.

Quick switch

Millner said her focus was improving statewide policy, not wading into controversy or suspicion surrounding Dixie Tech. “I don’t live in St. George,” she said. “It’s very hard for me to predict the reaction of the St. George community.”

After Stanard’s resignation, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, became the primary sponsor of HB300. But at Thursday’s committee hearing, he deferred questions to Millner, acknowledging that he had only recently become involved in the legislation.

“If it would please the chairs, I would like to have Sen. Millner present this bill and answer questions,” Last said. “I will learn along with you so that when I get on the [House] floor, I won’t sound like a fool.”

The bill contradicts efforts by Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, who is backing legislation aimed at empowering local campus boards in Utah’s higher education system to make hiring and firing decisions regarding school presidents.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, is backing legislation aimed at empowering local campus boards in Utah’s higher education system to make hiring and firing decisions regarding school presidents.

HB300 would clarify that the Utah System of Technical Colleges Board of Trustees has the final authority on technical college presidents, similar to how the Utah Board of Regents currently selects college and university presidents.

Fawson’s bill, HB122, would shift that authority to local boards that oversee individual campuses.

“I’m working with the new bill sponsor,” Fawson said of Rep. Last and HB300 on Friday.

Stephens said she’s supportive of Fawson’s efforts to boost local control of hiring decisions.

“It’s highly troubling that Sen. Millner’s bill, House Bill 300, would remove the local board of directors from decisions regarding the president of a local institution,” she said.

People ‘treated poorly’

Shortly before Stephens’ firing, former Dixie Tech employee Milan Tripp sued the school, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for refusing to lie about program growth in a government funding report.

Stephens declined to identify to The Tribune who sought to discredit her, but has confirmed that it was not Tripp. She said she is preparing a lawsuit tied to her termination, but declined to identify the intended defendants and details about the case.

Another former Dixie Tech employee, Mike Shrout, said Tripp’s allegations are not isolated. He said he expects additional lawsuits and complaints to be made against the school, related to Stephens’ tenure as president.

“This president has really treated people poorly — really ruined a lot of people’s lives,” he said.

Shrout alleges that he and his former co-workers witnessed or experienced wage discrimination, harassment, intimidation and retaliation related to pressure from administrators to exaggerate student performance data.

“There’s a lot of history over there of cooking numbers,” Shrout claimed, “making things sparkle on paper while the programs are actually suffering.”