21 Republicans and 3 Democrats: Here’s a look at the first partisan Utah Board of Education election

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty classroom at Parkview Elementary in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 1, 2020.

With the first set of races for Utah’s state school board where candidates can now run under a political party, Republicans looking to nab a seat far outnumber their Democratic competitors — by a massive margin of 7 to 1.

It’s a surprising turnout for the elections that typically don’t draw much attention. But the skew has some worried.

“Most people don’t have a clue who’s running for school board and will just vote for party,” said David Magleby, a political science professor emeritus at Brigham Young University. “There’s a lot at stake, though, in education. And it’s more academic than ideological.”

The Utah Board of Education, which oversees K-12 schools in the state, has 15 members total, each serving for four years with elections staggered. This year, there are nine open spots. And a record 27 candidates jumped in to run.

Up until this election, the races were nonpartisan. But late last year, after a lengthy legal challenge, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that candidates could run with a party banner for the first time.

Now, of those filed, 21 are Republicans. Three are Democrats. Two are unaffiliated, and one is with the Constitution Party.

Magleby believes that strong GOP showing comes because Utah is a red state and the school board districts outside of Salt Lake County have fewer Democrats — much like U.S. congressional and state legislative seats here. But he also fears that fewer Democrats decided to run for the board this year, thinking they couldn’t win with a “D” next to their name on the ballot, when before they ran just based on their ideas and it wasn’t partisan.

“I definitely think it discouraged some from running,” he said.

And that has already had some major results. With so little opposition to the GOP candidates, the four school board seats that will go to a primary Tuesday night will be decided after only that vote because there are no Democrats to face those primary winners in the general election. Only Republicans filed and will battle for the seat.

That means the Republican candidates who win the primary in districts 4, 10, 13 and 15 will be the next school board members (barring any unforeseen write-in surprises).

That is unprecedented and a concern, suggests state Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights. Riebe, who is also a teacher, previously served on the Utah Board of Education before running for the Utah Senate. During that time, she never affiliated with a political party.

“I’m not a fan of these partisan school board elections,” she said. “I think it’s creating a layer of tension that shouldn’t be in our schools.”

Additionally, Riebe said, it’s upsetting because only registered Republican voters can cast a ballot in the GOP primary. So that means when the four seats with no Democrat in competition are decided after the primary Tuesday, only Republicans will have determined who will represent the area on the school board — even though the person is supposed to represent the whole district.

“This just now erodes our entire democratic process,” she added. “Democrats have no voice.”

One seat, though — district 7 — had only one candidate file: incumbent Carol Lear. She filed as a Democrat. There is no primary there because no other Democrat filed. And there’s no Republican running in the general election, either. The seat is essentially already won, as well.

That leaves only four seats, of the total nine up for election this year — districts 3, 8, 11 and 12 — to move on to the general election ballot in November. And that’s to blame on the new partisan setup, said both Riebe and Magleby.

Before, when the school board elections were nonpartisan, all candidates went to the general election and there were no party conventions or primaries, similar to how municipal races work in the state. Riebe said it was more about ideas and proposals then.

“I think partisanship can sometimes get in the way, and I think this is one of those times,” Magleby added. “There’s a real danger in politicizing education administration.”

The professor emeritus worries about the implications of having a board that’s a majority of one party — especially with education. He feels that members will be less open to discussing ideas and more interested in toeing the party line. Other states have also moved to partisan school boards, he said, and it turned into “factions forming around particular agendas,” such as which textbooks to allow.

Not being tied to a party before, Magleby believes, previously allowed the Utah school board members to listen and be flexible in their positions. Now, being the most recognized candidate or the most well-funded or just having an “R” on the ballot will get someone elected, he said.

As such, many Republicans, Magleby said, saw running as an easy victory — and that’s part of why he thinks so many filed.

But Spencer Stokes, a conservative lobbyist who also previously served on the board, believes the numbers are misleading. He agrees that being a Republican in the race has an advantage, so that’s why he suggests “a whole bunch of people who are Democrats filed as Republicans so they could win.”

There have been similar allegations from other groups in the state. But The Salt Lake Tribune reviewed each candidate’s party affiliation and found no evidence to support that.

Only two of the 21 Republican candidates, for instance, had recently changed their party affiliation. One — Molly Hart in district 10 — previously oscillated between the GOP and the Libertarian party, which is also right-leaning. And Matt Hymas in district 3 was unaffiliated, which is common for teachers (he works at American Preparatory Academy), before registering as Republican for the race.

Hart, the principal at Albion Middle School, said: “My values are very much Republican. I am a strong proponent of fiscal responsibility.”

Hymas couldn’t be reached for comment.

Magleby said such attacks are just another part of having a partisan race.

David Irvine, one of the attorneys who fought against making the school board elections partisan, added that “the great benefit of nonpartisan school board races is that people don’t usually know the party of the candidate or it’s not seen as such a big deal.”

Instead, with the change, both he and Magleby said, it’s set to disrupt the entire makeup of the board, too, in an even further-reaching impact.

Two of the four incumbents who filed, Laurieann Thorpe and Mike Haynes, were already eliminated in convention and didn’t make it to the primary. Five other incumbents decided not to run — some because they didn’t want to be on a party ticket.

Here are the school board candidates, all Republican, who will be voted on in Tuesday’s primary:

District 4

This area covers North Salt Lake and part of Weber County.

• Brent J. Strate, who’s currently a teacher at Bonneville High School.

• K’Leena Furniss, who teaches American Preparatory Academy.

District 10

This area includes the south end of Salt Lake County, mostly capturing the city of Sandy.

• Molly L. Hart, who’s the principal at Albion Middle School.

• David Linford, who’s an adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah.

District 13

This area covers part of Utah County, mainly Provo.

• Alyson Williams, who teaches at Bellmont Classical Academy.

• Randy Boothe, who’s a faculty member at Brigham Young University.

District 15

The area captures southwest Utah with both St. George and Cedar City.

• Kristan Norton, who’s a fifth grade teacher in Washington County School District.

• Scott F. Smith, who was previously an appointed member of the Utah State Charter School Board.

The winners will all be unopposed in the general election. None are incumbents.

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