Legislation to bring temporary fix in selection of State Board of Education candidates signed by governor

Sen. Ann Millner speaking to the Utah Senate about the "State Board of Education Candidate Selection” bill prior to a final vote on March 10, 2016. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert March 18, 2016, Salt Lake City, March 10, 2016 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Senate, St. George News

 ST. GEORGE – Among the bills signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert last week is one that has, at least for the immediate future, changed the way candidates for the State Board of Education are chosen.

Signed last week by Herbert, the State Board of Education Candidate Selection bill does away with the Nominating and Recruiting Committee for the 2016 election cycle and establishes nonpartisan races for candidates whose numbers will be narrowed through a primary election. This changes again in 2018 when the race for the Board of Education becomes partisan.

The change comes in the wake of a 2014 decision by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups declaring the state’s previous method of selecting candidates unconstitutional. In his decision, Waddoups said the committee’s “unbridled discretion” to disqualify candidates violated their rights of free speech.

Waddoups’ decision came as a result of a lawsuit challenging the state’s candidate selection process. This lawsuit succeeded where a prior attempt overseen by another judge had been dismissed.

Prior to the decision, the Nominating and Recruiting Committee would vet potential candidates when more than two applied for the same position on the Board of Education. They would interview the individuals and submit three names to the governor, who would choose two names to be put on the November ballot.

While some of the committee members represent facets of public education, others represent various interests such as business, agriculture, construction, finance, manufacturing and technology.

Opponents of the committee claimed it catered to special interests and held a predisposed bias toward the candidates.

While Waddoups shot down the state’s method of selecting candidates, he ultimately left it in the hands of lawmakers to figure out how to fix it.

Attempts were made during the 2015 legislative session to address the issue, but none came to fruition. This year’s session was different.

It’s the best compromise we’ve got, and we need to move forward,” said Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, chief sponsor the 2016 legislation that provides a temporary solution to the matter.

During the final day of the 2016 legislative session, Millner told the Senate she had been involved in trying to fix the issue for the last couple of years. Her first preference was to keep the selection committee but to bar them from choosing or dropping candidates based on their “political or educational philosophies, viewpoints or affiliations.”

This idea didn’t survive the legislative process and the bill was tweaked as it went through the House and Senate.

Not everyone was pleased with the end result. Sen. James Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said it could result in having candidates on the Board of Education who are more beholden to their political parties and ideologies than tending to the educational needs of the state’s students.

We need honest, nonpartisan professionals,” Dabakis said.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he also preferred a nonpartisan board, yet he supported the final version of the legislation.

“(It’s) as comfortable as I’m going to get,” Vickers said, adding later that he was glad county-level school boards will remain nonpartisan.

As for the question of vetting potential candidates, Millner said that would be done through the regular political party process of primaries once that process becomes available during the 2018 election cycle.

Candidates will also be allowed to collect signatures in order to be placed on primary ballots, she said.

Board candidates will be required to gather 2,000 signatures — or 3 percent of their district’s registered party membership — to be able to get on the ballot.

For now, this will empower us to get through the next election,” Millner said.

Once the 2018 election cycle passes, the candidate selection process will likely be revisited by the Legislature in order to determine whether to keep the temporary solution or try for something else.

Current candidates running for the State Board of Education’s District 15 covering Washington and Iron counties include St. George residents Scott Smith and Michelle Boulter, Pine Valley resident Ralph Morris Brooks, Hurricane resident Wesley Christiansen and Santa Clara resident R. Neil Walter.

The State Board of Education Candidate Selection bill passed the House on March 10 in a 50-23 vote, with two representatives absent. It passed the Senate the same day in a 24-4 vote, with one senator absent.

Southern Utah representatives who voted for the bill include: Reps. Don Ipson, R-St. George; Brad Last (the bill’s House sponsor), R-Hurricane; Jon Stanard, R-St. George; V. Lowry Snow, R- St. George; and John Westwood, R-Cedar City.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, did not vote in favor of the bill.

Senators representing Southern Utah who voted for the bill include: Sens. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe; Steve Urquhart, R-St. George; and Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, voted against the legislation.

Resources

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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