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Major Changes Proposed for State School Board

Major Changes Proposed for State School Board



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah would have the nation's largest state school board under a proposal designed to make board elections partisan in this Republican-controlled state.

The state school board would also have its authority to appoint the state superintendent revoked under a plan favored by conservative lawmakers frustrated with the board's opposition to a private school voucher program.

State lawmakers passed the nation's broadest voucher program earlier this year, but it was killed in the election with 62 percent of the vote last week before any vouchers were issued. The state school board chairman, a moderate Republican, was one the leading opponents to the voucher movement.

The plan being proposed by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, would increase the size of the school board from 15 to 29. That's the number of senate districts in the state, which is how district lines would be drawn. It would almost assure a Republican super majority on the board.

Stephenson says not enough voters know who their school board members are and that increasing the size of the board would provide more accountability to voters.

"There is a sense that by creating a broader representation that the districts would be more manageable in the number of constituents," he said.

He also said that by making school board elections partisan, political parties would also get more people interested in running for office.

Utah already has one of the largest school boards in the country, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. It is the same size as Texas' and only New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina have more members. Pennsylvania has the largest school board with 21 members, who are all appointed by the governor.

Board chairman Kim Burningham says a 29 member school board would cost more and be difficult to manage.

"You're turning it into a legislative body then," he said. "We don't have the power to make laws. We make rules."

Burningham is also opposed to making school board elections partisan. In Utah, party candidates are nominated through party caucuses and conventions. Burningham says that process results in extreme elements in both parties being nominated.

The National Association of State Boards of Education doesn't take an official stand on how board members should be elected. However, it does say that "no matter what a state's governing structure, it must ensure the independence of the state board."

The state school board has had a contentious relationship with the Legislature for several years. The fight over vouchers just exacerbated it. A plan to make school board elections partisan was first proposed earlier this year. Since then, it has expanded.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, opposed vouchers. "I find it extraordinary they would be pushing this so quickly after the voucher vote. If the vote says anything, it tells us that people don't want partisanship," she said.

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said lawmakers have to go through a partisan process and that seems to work. He also notes nominees for the school board are already picked by a board appointed by the governor.

"I don't know that everyone is going to see that process as being nonpartisan, free of politics," said Hughes, a voucher advocate.

In a legislative meeting Wednesday, Stephenson said he wanted to give the public time to comment before moving forward with the school board proposal. He said it might not be discussed further until next year. However, he said he wanted to move ahead with making the state superintendent a part of the governor's cabinet.

Governors in about a dozen states appoint their state superintendent. Others are elected or appointed by the state school board.

For voucher opponent Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, it doesn't make sense to restructure the board.

"In my mind and in many people's minds this is not a system that's broken," he said. "Therefore, if it's not broken, why are we looking for a fix?"

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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