In rare disciplinary move, Utah school board leaders request that Natalie Cline resign

The formal request comes after Cline questioned a high school athlete’s gender in a since-deleted Facebook post.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. USBE members held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss disciplining Cline after she questioned a high school athlete’s gender last week in a since-deleted Facebook post. Cline did not attend.

Utah state school board leaders on Wednesday requested by unanimous vote that board member Natalie Cline immediately resign from her position.

Board members in a special meeting Wednesday also unanimously voted to prohibit Cline from placing items on Utah State Board of Education agendas, remove her from all standing committees and forbid her from attending advisory committees.

The rare disciplinary action comes after Cline questioned a high school athlete’s gender in a since-deleted Facebook post last week that caused a social media frenzy and prompted formal condemnation from state lawmakers and local leaders alike.

The post also resulted in numerous complaints to USBE’s public education hotline, which led to a “thorough” investigation by USBE’s internal audit department and the assistant attorney general, USBE said in a statement late Wednesday.

“I would express my concern for this student-athlete and the desire to protect all of our students from any public shame,” said board chair James Moss. “[The post] was put in context in a forum where it was fairly clear that it would invite scrutiny and shame.”

The board’s decision against Cline seems to amount to the most disciplinary action its leadership can take. The board’s leadership does not have the power or authority to unseat an elected official. USBE leaders also don’t have the authority to impeach a member.

Cline’s discipline will remain in effect through December 2024. Cline is running for reelection but her current term ends on Jan. 6, 2025.

Board member Matt Hymas said he supported the request that Cline resign because he said her actions did not reflect the board’s work as a body that represents children and their families. Two board members, Emily Green and Christina Boggess, initially advocated against asking her to resign, arguing that voters can make that decision. But they ultimately voted in favor.

Before the public vote, board members privately discussed Cline’s potential discipline for over three hours in an executive session closed to the public. The Utah Media Coalition in a letter Monday had urged the board to deliberate in public, arguing that Cline, by her own “voluntary” conduct, made the issue a public matter.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah State Board of Education meets in a closed session to discuss possible disciplinary action against Natalie Cline, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

Cline did not participate in the Wednesday hearing. In a letter she sent board members ahead of their executive session and ultimate vote, which she posted to her Facebook profile, she called the board’s process rushed and said it “will have the effect of depriving me my due process rights.”

The discipline doled out Wednesday centered around the Facebook post Cline made last week. In it, Cline shared a flyer for a high school girls’ basketball team in Salt Lake County with the caption “Girls’ basketball” — implying that one of the players was not female and suggesting she shouldn’t be able to play.

The student in Cline’s post was not transgender. In response to Cline’s post, many of Cline’s followers left offensive and threatening comments about the student, personally identifying her and her school.

Cline later removed the post and apologized, but Granite School District said it had to provide security for the student because of the responses. The Salt Lake Tribune is not identifying her school to protect her identity.

The state school board in a statement last week condemned Cline’s behavior and promised to take “prompt action regarding this matter.”

Board leadership has disciplined Cline once before, in fall 2021, when they chose to issue her a letter of reprimand after she posted another message critical of LGBTQ students that led some of her followers to threaten violence. At the time, the board distanced itself from her words in the letter, marking the first time a state school board member had ever been disciplined.

The board’s actions Wednesday marked the second time a board member has ever been disciplined.

“The Board would like to extend its deepest apologies to those harmed by this conduct, in particular the student who was targeted because of Member Cline’s post,” USBE said in its statement late Wednesday. “No individual, especially a child, should be subject to such comments and judgement. We hope that the actions taken today can provide support for the student and the family.”

As of 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Cline had not issued a public response regarding the board’s decision.

Cline argues discipline could amount to ‘election interference’

In a Facebook post earlier Wednesday, Cline questioned whether USBE’s planned executive session and resulting discipline amounted to “election interference.” Her post included screenshots of an email she sent board leadership on Tuesday.

In the email, Cline cited rules pertaining to Utah’s Independent Executive Branch Ethics Commission that bar people from filing complaints within 60 days of a primary or general election. She noted the upcoming Salt Lake County GOP nominating convention, which she incorrectly described as her “primary election,” is in April.

That commission has jurisdiction over the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state auditor and state treasurer, but not state school board members. Cline’s primary election is more than 60 days away, in June.

“Government agencies that care about their reputations with the public tend to be cautious about taking action that voters may see as election interference,” her email stated.

Cline noted in her email that the state’s Political Subdivisions Ethics Commission, which does have jurisdiction over state school board members, has a similar 60-day rule. But that rule does not apply to nominating conventions. The commission’s executive director did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cline’s email also cited the Department of Justice’s unwritten 60-day rule, under which its prosecutors traditionally avoid public disclosure or the returning of indictments within 60 days of a primary or general election.

”The USBE already has reputational problems because it is seen as bureaucratic and as using its power to abuse those who disagree with it,” Cline argued in the email. “A politicized investigation this close to an election will only cause more harm to ‘the good name of the Board,’” which she contended was a violation of the board’s bylaws.

USBE in a statement Wednesday said that even if the Salt Lake County GOP nominating convention that Cline incorrectly referred to as her primary election was considered a primary election, the complaints that initiated the disciplinary process were filed on Feb. 7 — 66 days before the convention and 139 days from the state primary election.

Board Chair James Moss briefly addressed Cline’s arguments Wednesday before heading into the closed discussion, deferring to USBE’s statement.

“We have taken that seriously,” Moss said. “We’ve addressed it and understand that we’re on solid ground with proceeding as noticed.”

‘What she did was improper and wrong’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, answers questions about Natalie Cline at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

Cline in her email to board leadership also accused Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who administers Utah’s elections, of using her “taxpayer-funded office to attack me.” Henderson and Gov. Spencer Cox released a joint statement last week on Cline’s Facebook post about the student, saying that Cline “embarrassed the state.” Henderson’s office declined comment Wednesday.

Before posting her arguments about election interference, Cline met with House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, behind closed doors early Friday, a spokesperson for the House Republicans confirmed Wednesday.

The meeting came as the GOP-controlled Legislature began working to decide what, if anything, it will do to respond to the controversy caused by Cline’s post about the student.

Legislative leaders quickly denounced Cline’s post. After Cline’s meeting with Schultz, House Republicans on Friday authorized drafting a resolution in response to her actions. At the time, lawmakers said their efforts could go as far as impeachment, but Senate Assistant Majority Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, said Wednesday that there doesn’t currently seem to be an appetite among his House colleagues to try to impeach Cline.

“I think we’ve got to be careful with that impeachment power,” Cullimore said. “Stuff has to rise to either the level of high crime or malfeasance, and as a political body and political process we have the ability to define malfeasance, but I think we’re getting [into a] gray area if we’re saying social media posts could be deemed malfeasance.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers have 11 working days to take action before the 2024 session ends on March 1.

Senate President Stuart Adams on Wednesday said he was aware that Cline met with Schultz, but neither he nor any other Republicans in his chamber have had any contact with her or the family of the student since Cline’s post sparked outrage.

Regarding Cline’s arguments about potential election interference, Adams said, “I don’t think there’s anything that’s ‘election year’ about this.”

“What she did was improper and wrong,” he continued. Adams added that he “wasn’t sure she was up for election when this came out, quite frankly.”

Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla also said Wednesday that she doesn’t see how efforts to discipline Cline could be tied to an election.

“She put herself in that position. No one forced her to do something so horrendous and egregious like that, so it’s on her,” Escamilla said. “She should be accountable for her actions.”

Cline complaints, condemnation

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A person holds a sign after the Granite School District's board passed a resolution against the actions of Natalie Cline and in support of its student athlete during a meeting in South Salt Lake on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

As of Feb. 8, the board had received at least 180 complaints over Cline’s post about the student, according to the board’s records officer.

The Granite School District’s local board of education passed a resolution Friday condemning Cline’s behavior and demanding her immediate resignation.

It was one of several formal condemnations regarding Cline. The Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday issued a statement calling for her to resign, adding that it “unequivocally” condemns her “deeply troubling” actions.

“As public officials, it is our duty to prioritize the safety and well-being of all individuals, particularly vulnerable youth who are entrusted to our care,” the statement continued.

The Midvale City Council shared equally strong sentiments in a public letter addressed to Cline on Friday. The city falls within the boundaries of Cline’s voting district.

“Your behavior clearly shows you are incapable of fulfilling your duty when it leads directly to subjecting a student to cyberbullying and public criticism,” the letter reads. “It contradicts the values that we, as a community, stand for.”

The Midvale letter called for Cline to resign immediately. “This action is deemed necessary to restore public trust in our educational institutions,” it stated.

The Canyons and Jordan school districts’ local boards of education on Tuesday adopted the same resolution against Cline that Granite’s board passed, calling on her to resign. Both districts serve a portion of students living within Cline’s voting district.

The Murray School District’s board also planned to convene a special meeting Thursday with the possibility of taking similar action.

— Tribune staff writer Emily Anderson Stern contributed to this report.