Despite pending Utah Supreme Court ruling, Senate committee approves bill to have partisan elections for the state Board of Education

A Republican state senator has proposed allowing candidates for the Utah Board of Education — the elected panel that oversees the state’s public schools — to run under a political party.

It’s an unexpected and contentious move that comes three years after the Legislature already approved a bill to do that — but which was immediately held up by a lawsuit alleging the measure violated the state constitution. A 3rd District judge ruled against the law and a final decision from the Utah Supreme Court is still pending.

And this latest action, coming before that ruling with a 5-2 vote of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, could raise even more legal challenges.

“It seems premature, at least, at this point,” said David Irvine, one of the attorneys in the lawsuit challenging the 2016 bill that previously attempted to make the school board elections partisan. “We don’t know what the court is going to rule.”

Irvine and the plaintiffs have argued that the state constitution prohibits the use of “religious or partisan” requirements for employment in education in the state, including teachers. The state, which has defended the change to political seats, has said that school board is separate from that.

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, the sponsor of SB236, said all the new bill does is “clarify the election process” at the heart of that question, despite a 3rd District judge ruling earlier that the setup would be illegal. Her bill would allow individuals to run for the Utah Board of Education under a party or as an unaffiliated or write-in candidate, though it’s unclear how it could be implemented before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

It’s the latest in the debate over how the school board is structured that has rumbled on for years now.

Another legislator this year proposed and later withdrew a measure to get rid of board elections and have members appointed by the governor. Previous lawmakers have tried to eliminate the board altogether. And the state’s previous method of picking candidates, chosen for the ballot by the governor and a nominating committee, was declared unconstitutional in 2014.

Currently, 15 members are elected by voters in different districts across the state and serve for four years — with elections alternating every two.

Under the school board candidates bill passed in 2016, partisan elections were supposed to start in 2018. Implementation was delayed with the lawsuit filed against the state by current and former school board members and the Utah PTA, which worried that political ideologies would influence curriculum in state schools and that, with a GOP-majority state, Republicans would decide all education policy.

The Supreme Court ruling — with no date for its release — will now potentially impact the 2020 election.

There was little debate from the committee on the measure Tuesday, though Sen. Kathleen Riebe, a former member of the Utah Board of Education and one the two members to vote against it, voiced her opposition.

“Bringing experience as a teacher allowed me to provide information,” not being a member of a party, said Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights. “Moving to a partisan board and a partisan test is not beneficial to our schools.”

Four of the five members of the public who spoke also were against the measure.

Irvine urged the committee to come back to the issue after the high court rules. “I don’t see that there’s a particular urgent crisis for this bill to be considered this session.”

Current state Board of Education member Carol Barlow Lear, who won her seat in 2016, said partisan elections “invite divisiveness and the most extreme elements of the party to prevail.”

The Utah Education Association and the Alliance for a Better Utah — which is also a plaintiff on the pending case — additionally asked the committee to delay a vote. Both worried some voters would pick party over candidate on a ballot.

The Utah Association of Public Charter Schools was the only audience voice in favor of the proposal, which it called “really quite simple.”

The measure now goes to the full Senate for consideration.