Robert Gehrke: We need to make this radical change to Utah’s school board

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

Pop quiz: Name the governor, your congressman and your state attorney general.

You can probably get most of these, right? Now name your representative on the State School Board.

Take your time. But if you’re like most Utahns — I’d be willing to bet 90% or more — you can’t name any of the 27 members.

See, I got you again. There are only 15 members on the board, but chances are you didn’t know that, either.

These are critical positions, with more direct control than even the governor over what is routinely one of the most important issues in the state.

The board’s antics in recent years — driven mainly by a few strident conservative members — have been the cause of countless eyerolls and even made national headlines.

Members have fought against curriculum that teaches climate change and evolution. They sounded alarms about English courses promoting socialism. They took a hard line against a more comprehensive sex education, catered to charter schools and home-schooling, and set policies that let parents opt-out of vaccinating their children.

They are setting far-reaching policy — and nobody knows who the heck they are.

Legislators recognize it’s a problem, but their solution could make it even worse. Beginning this year, instead of candidates running on their merits in nonpartisan races, they will run as Democrats and Republicans, basically giving voters a crutch for when they end up staring blankly at their ballot, not knowing who the board candidates are.

It means that candidates will have to go through partisan nominating contests which, as we have seen time and again, produce nominees on both sides of the partisan divide who are often well outside the state norm.

Last week, Gov. Gary Herbert embraced a better approach: Let the next governor start appointing members of the school board.

Herbert, in his budget proposal last week, said the governor is “hobbled” when he has no direct oversight of the public education system, which takes up nearly $5 billion of the state budget. Herbert recommends that the Legislature put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that, going forward, would let future governors appoint qualified individuals to the Utah State Board of Education.

At the very least, Herbert said last week, the governor should have the power to appoint the state superintendent.

It’s not the first time the idea has been considered.

Last legislative session, Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, proposed a constitutional amendment that would have given the governor the authority to appoint school board members. The Senate would then hold confirmation votes.

But the proposal got a chilly reception and never made it out of committee. Some current school board members believed the change would strip parents of an important say in who runs schools.

A year earlier, a resolution sponsored by then-Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, would get rid of the board altogether, replacing it with a single state superintendent. It passed the Senate but didn’t make it through the House.

Here’s what I think would make the most sense: Reduce the state school board from 15 members to 11, with a designated member representing charter schools and one representing the business community.

The other nine would be selected by the governor from a field of up to five names nominated by the local, elected school district boards. They could be interviewed and vetted by a nominating commission and subject to Senate confirmation — similar to what the state does with judicial nominees.

That would maintain local elections, where the rubber meets the road, and give local voices a say in who represents them at the state level. It would also translate into board members who are qualified for the job, rather than those able to pass the partisan litmus tests.

It’s similar to the system that has worked well for the Board of Regents, which oversees Utah’s public colleges and universities.

Originally, I was apprehensive about getting rid of an elected board. Democratic elections are, generally speaking, good. But the accountability to the electorate only works if voters know who to hold accountable. Right now, as lobbyist and former board member Spencer Stokes said during the debate last year, “No one knows which bums to vote out.”

It does centralize power under the governor and requires trust in him or her to act in the best interest of schools. But voters can at least hold a governor accountable if they don’t like the results and, unlike now, the governor can actually have a hand in shaping those outcomes.

In the next several months, we’ll hear a lot of talk from gubernatorial candidates about how important education is to them. But whoever holds the office a year from now won’t really have much say in how we educate our young people, unless we make a fundamental and long-overdue change to the system.