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Committee fails to advance State School Board election reform bills

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's frequently criticized method of electing State School Board members will live to fight — or be fought — another year after a bill creating direct elections failed to gain majority support in a Senate committee Friday.

The Senate Education Committee was evenly split 3-3 on HB223, effectively halting the bill as lawmakers head into the final week of the 2014 Legislature.

HB223 was one of three bills seeking to change the way school board members are elected and appeared to be in a strong position heading into the final days of the session after clearing the House with a 57-15 majority. But all three bills ultimately failed to clear their respective hurdles Friday.

"No one seems to like the (current) system, and I’ll be darned if anybody wants to change it," said Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden.

Currently, school board members are elected through an indirect process that sees candidates vetted by a recruiting and nomination committee, which forwards three names per seat to the governor. The governor then selects two names to appear on the ballot.

The process has been criticized for blocking access to the ballot by candidates and for removing incumbents from the board without the input of their constituents. The review board, which consists of representatives from education, business and industry interests, has also been accused of lobbying and influencing the agenda of the state's top education officials.

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, HB223's sponsor, said he believes the current process violates the spirit of the Utah Constitution, which calls for school board members to be elected.

"There is an election following the selection, but I don’t see selection as election," Nielson said.

Todd Bingham, of the Utah Manufacturers Association, said he has served on the review committee three times. He said an aspect of the committee that is frequently overlooked is its role in recruiting qualified candidates.

"The one thing that has been beneficial from that recruiting committee is the ability to attract individuals who may not otherwise file for a school board seat," Bingham said.

But Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis Board of Education, questioned why the state would return to a direct election process that was deemed inadequate in the past.

"For 10 years the state of Utah used this method, a nonpartisan general primary election method, and after 10 years rejected it and chose a different method," Cannon said. "It seems odd that we would go back to it again."

Nielson said the political climate in Utah has changed since 1991 when the selection committee process was established. He said in the past there was a concern about voters being adequately informed, which has been rendered moot with advancements in technology and social media.

"We live in a place where we have access to information on the Internet and where candidates can push information to voters very cost-effectively," he said.

Sens. Reid, Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, and Pat Jones, D-Holladay, voted in support of advancing the bill to the Senate floor. The bill was opposed by Sens. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, and Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs.

The committee also rejected a bill that would have blocked lobbyists from serving on the recruiting and nomination committee and required that incumbents be advanced to the governor for final consideration.

Earlier Friday, the Utah House narrowly rejected a bill that would have established partisan elections for State School Board members through the party caucus and convention process.

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Benjamin Wood


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