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SALT LAKE CITY — On a recent Saturday, the nascent Utah nonprofit organization Raise Your Hand Utah extended an open invitation to people considering running for their local school board.
Among a group of some 30 people who attended the "engagement summit" at Salt Lake's Glendale Middle School, eight indicated they were planning to file this week "and four of those are people of color," said David Doty, former superintendent of the Canyons School District and a career educator, who serves on the organization's board.
"We're very, very pleased with the first run at this. There were probably another four or five people there who said they were seriously considering filing this week. So it'll be interesting to see at the end of this week how many actually do," he said.
The filing window opened Monday and closes on Friday. While the number and names of prospective candidates won't be known until then, some incumbents are not seeking reelection, perhaps reflective of the intense demands of the office the past two years.
Others, like Linda Hanks, who is serving her 12th year on the Juab Board of Education and is seeking another term, describe the past couple of years as "really challenging" for both schools and governing boards.
"Honestly, I don't recall ever receiving training on how to best govern schools through a pandemic. It has been a learning experience and one in which every community experienced a varied public response," said Hanks, who is president of the Utah School Boards Association.
The COVID-19 pandemic, national reckoning on social justice, and efforts to remove books from school libraries and rid schools of curriculum some parents have deemed inappropriate added a new dimension to local school board members' already full plate.
As infection rates rose in schools, boards were tasked with approving temporary closures to help stem the spread of COVID-19. Some boards that in the past had met a couple of times a month were suddenly meeting weekly or more frequently if the need arose.
When school boards resumed in-person meetings, emotions were high. At least one school district had to suddenly adjourn its meeting when the audience became so unruly over wearing masks that nearly a dozen attendees were charged with disrupting a public meeting.
The high-profile incident shined a spotlight on local school boards, which likely sparked greater-than-usual interest in their duties, Doty said.
"If there's any silver lining in the kind of political turmoil that a lot of these boards have sort of found themselves embroiled in, it's maybe that they are more visible now. People are paying attention, I think, across the political spectrum to what's going on," he said.
Nichole Mason, president of the nonprofit parents' rights organization Utah Parents United, said the pandemic and the emotional debates over several high-profile issues opened the eyes of many parents with respect to the duties and powers of local schools boards.
"A great illustration was what happened in Salt Lake City School District. Every other school district in the state was on in-person learning, except for Salt Lake district. So those kids suffered a full year of learning deficit from being online versus in person. That was determined by their school board. That shows you how great of an impact a school board can have on learning and what's happening to your kids," she said.
Mason said Utah Parents United is also encouraging parents to research the voting records of their board members "so they can decide whether that person really represents their voice on the school board or whether they need to find another person who might represent their views better."
For Utah Parents United, parental rights loom large, she said.
"Our government is really set up as we the people, by the people, for the people, right? The idea is, it's a representative government. We need to be willing to participate. From our perspective, we can't abdicate our parental responsibility to the state, if we aren't involved," Mason said.
Utah Parents United has offered to connect parents interested in running to national organizations such as FreedomWorks to help with training and background information. According to its website, "FreedomWorks exists to build, educate, and mobilize the largest network of activists advocating the principles of smaller government, lower taxes, free markets, personal liberty and the rule of law."
As an organization, Raise Your Hand Utah has sought to recruit "solid, reasonable minded, and hopefully diverse people to run for the school board," Doty said.
Beyond that, the organization plans to offer a "school board training academy to help them better understand their role and to be more effective in their position and on their respective board," he said. The group is not seeking to supplant the ongoing work of the Utah School Board Association but to provide an alternative, Doty said.
Hanks said the school board association does not recruit candidates but it provides training for newly elected board members. "We typically anticipate about 40-50 new board members. This has been a fairly consistent number for the last couple of decades and we are expecting the same this fall. Only time will tell if this year will be different."
In addition to Raise Your Hand Utah and Utah Parents United, Hanks said she is aware of efforts by the Utah PTA , Parents for Teachers and Utah Parents Involved in Education encouraging and supporting people to run for school boards.
One board leader who will be stepping away from her board service in December is Melissa Ford, president of the Salt Lake City Board of Education.
Ford said she entered board service thinking she would serve two four-year terms. Her youngest son graduated from high school last spring and she believes the time is right for someone else to have the opportunity to represent the community.
The rigor of the past two years also played a role in her decision, which included the pandemic, the board's controversial decision to remain on remote learning after all other Utah school districts returned to in-person learning, hiring a new superintendent, and the arrest of a board member on charges of sexual abuse of a minor and enticing a minor over internet or text.
"It has taken a personal toll," Ford said.
There were times when the board reached a point of "it's been as hard you think it's going to get. You just kind of go 'OK, we'll just keep going.' We and I have, and it's been fine. It's been hard, but it's been fine, too. You just keep going and you learn how to navigate those really difficult things publicly," she said.
While the last two years have been challenging, Ford said it has been an honor to serve her community. "I love it, I do. It was not easy to decide not to run again," she said.
Hanks said this past couple of years have been particularly difficult for some school boards that have had to suddenly adjourn their meetings after significant disruptions of their meetings.
While board meetings are public meetings, not all meetings are public forums, she said.
"This has led to frustrations and mistrust and may lead to some incumbent board members not running or losing in an election. I do, however, have reason to feel positive. How can we not be positive when we visit schools and watch a child learn new things every day? I look forward to welcoming any new board members and being a resource to them for training," Hanks said.