Plans to remake — if not abolish — the Utah Board of Education see heavy lobbying on Capitol Hill, with strange alliances on many sides

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, as seen in the Utah House of Representatives, Wednesday, March 7, 2018.

The Utah Board of Education may survive an attempt to replace it with a school superintendent, but it might not make it unscathed past Thursday adjournment on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

After a meeting of the House Republican caucus Wednesday, lawmakers say a more likely proposal than eliminating the board outright may be to abandon elections for board members, then create a panel appointed by the governor, similar to the Utah Board of Regents overseeing the state’s colleges and universities.

“That’s where we’re headed,” said Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton. “We’re trying to figure out how to constitute this board.”

McCay is the House sponsor of SJR16, a proposed constitutional amendment that in its current form would abolish the Utah Board of Education. The resolution passed the Senate in a 22-6 vote on Monday, but requires a two-thirds approval by the House, followed by public approval at the ballot in November.

McCay said preserving some type of board over public education is important to a lot of people, which would maintain the practice of public meetings and debate over decisions such as curriculum standards.

Sponsored by one of the Legislature’s most liberal members, Salt Lake City Democrat Sen. Jim Dabakis, the late-arriving resolution has upended the traditional alliances of Utah’s education community in the final week of the 2018 session.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gayle Ruzicka, Utah Eagle Forum, jokes as she speaks in support of Sen. Jim Dabakis bill, SJR16 during a Senate Education Committee meeting at the Capitol, Friday, March 2, 2018.

It is opposed by the Utah Education Association and grassroots groups like the Utahns Against Common Core, but supported by Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka and some sitting members of the state school board.

A majority of the state school board voted last week to oppose the resolution.

“The ironies of how this is rolling out is really interesting,” McCay said.

In recent years, lawmakers have debated whether the board should be elected through partisan or nonpartisan elections. A previous method, relying on a nominating committee to screen candidates, was ruled unconstitutional, which led to direct elections.

Michelle Boulter, a home-schooling parent and conservative member of the Utah Board of Education, said she was “shocked” with the speedy Senate passage of SJR16.

“I do believe this move has a lot to do with our current makeup of the board and the fact that the people chose rather than a selection committee,” she said. “Under the guise of accountability we are consolidating power to an unaccountable appointed individual.”

Board member Kathleen Riebe, a Granite School District teacher and Democrat candidate for the Utah Senate, said the diversity of opinion among the current board members is beneficial to the state’s education system.

“I, one of the most liberal members, agree with the most conservative members that the voice and input of the stakeholders is paramount,” Riebe said.

But where critics see speed, McCay said he sees the legislative process at work. He sponsored an appointed school board bill after the old election method was rejected in court, and the topic of education governance has been a frequent point of discussion on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

“Every policy is about timing,” he said. “I think you learn more as the process goes on.”


Constitutional amendment to abolish the state school board and replace it with a state superintendent who is appointed by the governor. - Read full text

Current Status:

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

March 5: Utah Board of Education finds few defenders as bill to abolish it sails through the Senate

Sen. Daniel Thatcher said he wasn’t comfortable voting to abolish the state school board on Monday.

Not because it’s a bad idea, the West Valley Republican said, but because he never expected to have to vote on SJR16, a resolution to amend the Utah Constitution and replace the 15-member Utah Board of Education with an appointed state superintendent.

“I just don’t know that I’m prepared, not thinking that this has legs, not thinking that this was going to go anywhere,” Thatcher said. “Today, really, was the first time that I’ve given it serious thought.”

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, appeared to catch several lawmakers off guard. It received its first committee hearing Friday before earning a vote of 22-6 in the Senate on Monday.

One of Dabakis’ Democratic colleagues, Salt Lake City Sen. Jani Iwamoto, attempted to give an explanation of her vote before choosing to “pass” after stating she was undecided on the resolution. She ultimately voted against the proposal.

“I feel like I’m not sure that I have a full enough discussion to do this,” she said.

The bill’s supporters, however, were more confident in the move. Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, argued that public education in Utah lacks accountability and direction.

“We need to be able to think about this differently than we’ve ever thought about it,” she said. “It is the governor who would be in charge of education.”

Dabakis argued that the change would empower voters by more clearly drawing a line between education and a single, widely-known elected official.

Rather than a 15-member panel pulled in different directions by parents, voters and elected officials, he said, Utah’s education system would become an executive department overseen by a Cabinet-level appointee.

Because the resolution is a constitutional amendment, it requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, followed by approval of voters.

“We are letting the people of Utah decide — it’s that simple,” Dabakis said. “In November, under this, they will go to the polls.”

March 2: Outspoken Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis seeks to abolish state school board — and a Utah Senate committee agreed with him unanimously

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Jim Dabakis gives Gayle Ruzicka, Utah Eagle Forum, a hug, as she speaks in support of his bill, SJR16 during a Senate Education Committee meeting at the Capitol, Friday, March 2, 2018.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said Friday she’s been waiting 30 years for a proposal to abolish the Utah Board of Education.

And she has waited several years, she said, to agree on a policy position with Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, one of the Utah Legislature most liberal lawmakers.

“Whoever thought it would be Jim Dabakis that would bring this to this committee?” she said Friday.

For years, Utah lawmakers have argued the merits of electing school board members through partisan or nonpartisan elections. And at one point, a proposal was floated to have the 15-member board appointed by the governor.

But SJR16, a proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by Dabakis, takes that debate one step further by eliminating the Utah Board of Education altogether, replacing it with a single, appointed state superintendent who would oversee public education on the governor’s behalf.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Jim Dabakis gives Gayle Ruzicka, Utah Eagle Forum, a hug, as she speaks in support of his bill, SJR16 during a Senate Education Committee meeting at the Capitol, Friday, March 2, 2018.

“Everybody knows who the governor is,” Dabakis said. “That governor ought to be responsible for what is happening in public education.”

The Senate Education Committee agreed with Dabakis on Friday, voting unanimously to advance the resolution for a full Senate debate. The 2018 legislative session adjourns next Thursday.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, SJR16 requires support from two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate, before going on a statewide ballot for public approval to become law.

The Utah Board of Education voted 11-0 on Thursday to oppose Dabakis’ proposal. And on Friday, board member Carol Lear testified before the committee, arguing that the responsibilities of the state school board are best achieved through a deliberative body.

Board members often disagree, she said, but good government relies on multiple perspectives.

“My feeling is democracy is messy,” she said. “Representative government is messy, it’s not always as perfect as one perfect in charge.”

But Spencer Stokes, a school board member who missed Thursday’s board vote to oppose Dabakis’ resolution, spoke in favor of abolishing the panel he serves on. Public education is pulled in different directions by school board members, teachers associations, lawmakers and superintendents, he said, which makes it difficult to be responsive to the public.

“You have about 400 people who are in charge of public education,” Stokes said. “When you have that, no one is accountable.”

Dabakis said it “hurts” to turn public education over to what is likely to be a Republican governor for years to come. But, he said, it’s the right thing to do.

The state needs leadership in education, he said, and voters could better demand change with a single elected official overseeing the state’s school system.

“All this talk about taking power away form the voters — I don’t think so,” Dabakis said. “I think this is the strongest possible way to put the voters in control.”

In a written statement, Herbert spokesman Paul Edwards said that the governor is frequently asked about improving schools, despite relatively little authority over public education.

“At the end of the day, the Governor’s only formal role in education is that of the bully pulpit,” Edwards said. “Very few Utahns can name their representative on the state school board — but Utahns do know their governor. This proposed amendment could provide better accountability for the governance of our schools and the education of our children.”