The Utah Board of Education is going to look dramatically different after next month’s election. Many of the seats will be filled with new faces — and most of those will be Republicans.
That comes with the first partisan school board races in the state.
Whether to allow education candidates to run with a party affiliation was a source of serious contention for years, including a high-stakes lawsuit and several bills from the state Legislature pushing for the change. The law finally went into effect for this election.
The resulting skew of candidates to the right is, in part, because Utah is deeply red overall. It’s also explained by the geography of the districts, which split Salt Lake County, the bluest part of the state, said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
But he feels the biggest reason is that there’s usually not a lot of interest in the state school board — especially with a gubernatorial contest and presidential race this year — so few people run, and fewer from the minority party.
“But these people have an enormous amount of influence on the part of our lives that matters the most — our kids," Perry said.
That’s especially the case, he added, with schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, which played a major role in the debates for the school board races. Most candidates pushed for classrooms to reopen in person.
At least six of the nine seats on the ballot for the Utah Board of Education are guaranteed to go conservative. Five were already decided in the primary, with the Republican candidates having no Democratic competitor in the general election. (One seat also went to Democratic incumbent, Carol Barlow Lear, who faced no contest from the right.)
That leaves three races for voters to weigh in on in November. One of those — in District 12 — has a Republican candidate vying against a Constitution Party candidate, so it’ll be red either way.
But the other two — for Districts 3 and 11 — have politically diverse candidates. Here’s a rundown the races left to be decided.
This area captures northwestern Utah, primarily Juab and Tooele Counties, and also parts of Salt Lake County, including West Valley City.
This is the only contest between a Republican and a Democrat. It will fill the seat held by Laurieann Thorpe, who was appointed by the governor after the previous board member stepped down. The winner will finish out the remaining two years of that term.
Matt Hymas, the Republican, is the high school director at a charter, the American Preparatory Academy’s West Valley City Campus II. The school has come under fire for not tracking nearly $4 million in special education funding, and Hymas has said one of his main goals is to simplify education spending.
He’s also a strong proponent of leaving more decisions up to individual districts and charters. And Hymas believes in school choice. Four of his kids attend charters, and one goes to a traditional public high school.
Additionally, he opposes explicit sex education, saying that “abstinence is the best method," which is what Utah currently teaches. And he supports having police officers in schools, which has been controversial with numbers showing more action taken against students of color.
Hymas has also been in favor of schools reopening for in-person classes. “I don’t want kids to not have a place to go,” he said during a debate earlier this month hosted by the Utah Education Debate Coalition.
Brett Garner, the Democrat, is raising his two boys, who attend Rolling Meadows Elementary in West Valley City. He has previously worked on some political campaigns, including Utahns for Public Schools, the referendum to repeal school vouchers. His wife, Shannon, is a special education teacher in Granite School District.
He’s running largely on a platform of supporting teachers and neighborhood schools.
Garner wants to increase their pay in an effort to address the educator shortage in the state. And, to decrease workload, he wants to reduce Utah’s historically large class sizes. To do both of those, he supports the Legislature funding education more — not less. So he opposes Amendment G, which would dilute the allocated money for education in the state by expanding the pool to also fund services for individuals of any age with disabilities.
“I think that is a mistake,” he said during the debate. “We just can’t trust the Legislature that we’re going to have this special fund.”
In opposition to Hymas, Garner opposes officers in schools and supports “age-appropriate, evidence-based and comprehensive” sex education.
This area includes pieces of both Salt Lake County, primarily Sandy, South Jordan and Herriman, as well as part of western Utah County.
The two are running to replace Mike Haynes, who was also appointed by the governor, but the winner will serve for a full four-year term.
Zani served for a decade in the U.S. Army before taking on his current job as a literary specialist, training other educators how to teach children to read and write. He said he’s running without a party because he’s “not trying to walk in with any preconceived notions.”
He’s a big proponent of having K-12 schools specialize in certain subjects — the arts or science, for instance — and then allowing parents to choose the best fit for their kid. All aspects of education, he believes, work best when educators and parents work together to draft policies.
Additionally, he would like to limit the number of tests that students have to take. He believes that would improve school culture and take some burden off of teachers — and hopefully keep more in the classroom. Currently, nearly 50% of educators in Utah quit sometime in the first five years on the job. Many, Zani said, are burning out under the expectations.
“This has been a very challenging year for our teachers,” he said during the debate. “We deserve honor and respect.”
He also believes that some of the new technology used for instruction during the pandemic will help “enhance teaching” for years to come.
Schools should be doing everything they can, too, to eliminate bullying and teach students to be anti-racist, Zani added.
Cline disagreed sharply with that. During the debate, she said schools should not “indoctrinate children with certain theories” of race, including telling white students that they’re responsible for past wrongs.
“And anti-racist curriculum does nothing to solve racism,” she added, referring again to “indoctrinated concepts of diversity and inclusivity.”
Cline describes herself as a mother and grandmother who believes in “faith, family and freedom.” She said she is running for the state school board to protect the “natural family,” which she defines as a mother and father — not an LGBTQ partnership. Her main platform is defending parental rights and “protecting the innocence of children.”
“It’s time parents reclaim their role as the primary decision-maker in their child’s education,” she said. “The more we undermine parents, the worse the outcome for children will be.”
With that, she supports no sex education being taught in schools — suggesting it should be left to parents at home — along with other “dangerous lesson plans” on abortion. Her website adds: “Teachers must remember that they are accountable to parents, not the other way around, and parents are ultimately accountable to God.”
Additionally, Cline supports vouchers that use public funding for families to send their students to private schools. And she wants to abolish standardized testing. She’s also in favor of local control, leaving districts in charge of all education funding. And she opposes technology in the classroom, saying students who use computers are “becoming less literate.”
This area covers northeastern Utah, including Summit, Wasatch, Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties, as well as Orem and Lindon in Utah County.
This seat is currently held by Mark Marsh, who was also appointed by the governor and decided not to run for election. It is being contested by two candidates on the right of the political spectrum: James Moss Jr., a Republican, and Becky Taylor, a member of the Constitution Party.
Moss, who lives in Midway, is a partner at a Salt Lake City law firm and the son of the late James R. Moss, who served as the state superintendent in the 1980s. He also finished an appointed term this year on the Utah State Charter School Board and serves as chair of the Wasatch High School Community Council.
His solution to the teacher shortage is to further loosen licensing requirements for educators to get into classrooms, especially for those with expertise in computer science. Currently, districts can hire an individual with relevant professional experience, but not a teaching background, through an alternative licensure pathway.
Moss said he also wants the state school board to worry less about oversight and compliance and focus more on supporting innovation, through sharing the best work in Utah schools, including from some rural areas that he feels often get overlooked.
“The teachers know what’s working and what’s not,” he said during the debate last month.
He, too, believes in local control and says the federal government — and sometimes the state — is “out of their lane” in trying to tell schools what to do. There should be waivers for any mandate, he said. And every parent should have a choice; during the pandemic, he said, that should include whether to send students to school in person or via online instruction.
Taylor is a trained emergency responder, but her interest in education, she said, is as a mother of four and a grandmother of nine. Throughout the debate, she answered many questions by reading statements from people who would be her constituents if she wins. It’s important, she said, that the people are represented.
She wants local districts and charters to not be restricted in any way in how they use state dollars to support students. “Keep the state out of the picture,” she said. “The less rules the better. We want to over-legislate everything.”
Unlike Moss, though, she doesn’t want any student to be able to opt out of standardized testing. Those with anxiety or special needs, Taylor said, can have accommodations. But the state should be able to get an accurate picture of how its kids are performing.
Taylor supports having more police officers in schools but opposes technology in the classroom. She worries that privacy rights have been violated by teachers and students using web cameras to connect during the pandemic, and she fears that computers could “lead to mind control.” She said educators should focus on the basics of instructing students face-to-face.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Salt Lake Tribune overstated Tony Zani's approach to anti-racism training in the classroom. It has since been corrected to remove that information.