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Current system for electing state board of education members is too easily manipulated

Rep. Carl Wimmer is proposing partisan elections for the state board of education. Opponents criticize this as “politicizing” education.

Reform opponents, however, don’t want voters to know how their state school board is currently “elected”. Not only is the current system “politicized”, it is hardly democratic, and the process is easily manipulated by the education establishment. This manipulation, not vouchers, is the impetus for changing the current process.

When considering the current system for nominating and electing school board members, ask yourself if you think Utah should elect legislators and governors in the same way.

Here’s how the system works.

Step One: Low-profile committee recruits and selects nominees for the state school board

A group of insiders gets to determine who appears on the ballot in November. Currently, a low-profile 12-member committee consisting primarily of UEA supporters is supposed to select three candidates in each board race for the governor’s consideration. In order to get on the ballot, a candidate must be nominated by this committee. Members of the committee are supposed to represent a broad range of interests, but they typically represent the education establishment. Unlike the two-party process, this committee is virtually unknown to the public, and the local media provides very little if any coverage of this committee’s membership or decisions.

Step Two: The Governor makes his choices
Using the committee’s list of recommended candidates, the governor then picks up two candidates for each race (or one if the committee only picks one candidate for a given race) and then puts these names on the ballot.

When the committee picks one candidate for a given race (which is a violation of the law), then that one candidate automatically appears on the ballot unchallenged and is elected to the state board of education.

Step Three: The people “choose”
This is hardly an election in the true sense of democracy since the candidates on the ballot were not selected by an open, accessible, contested process. They were selected by a low-profile committee and the governor. At least in a partisan process, most races would be contested, either within the party at convention or primary or in the general election.

To get on the ballot in the current process, there are no public debates or meet-the-candidates nights. It’s all done quietly and without any scrutiny except for a very small committee.

Sometimes, a reform candidate manages to get on the ballot, but this is rare. In the end, the “election” is almost always a perfunctory ratification of the establishment’s candidates, not a true election.

Some people claim that Utah’s “one-party” partisan process is too restrictive and is dominated by Utahns with narrow interests. However, the current process for selecting state school board members is much more restrictive and closed than the process for electing the governor and legislators.

Brazen manipulation of the system in 2006, not vouchers, is the impetus for change
The current restrictive process is bad enough, but the education establishment’s brazen manipulation of this process last year was the final straw for many legislators. Here’s a summary of what happened:

1. Although state law requires the committee to be formed by November 1 in the year prior to the election, the 12-member committee was not formed until March, just days prior to the candidate filing deadline.

2. The committee was stacked with mostly UEA loyalists.

3. None of the eight races had more than two nominees for the governor to choose from.

4. In three races, the committee did not recommend anyone other than the incumbent.

Opponents of partisan elections for state board of education are going to have a hard time justifying the current system.

Utah Taxpayers Association

Do you have any further information on how that "group of insiders" who nominate candidates for board office are chosen? Is there some statute or constitutional provision granting this group its nominating power?

The process as you describe it does sound ugly and undemocratic. That said...why is a partisan process any better. Even UTA...Republican Party organ that it is...can see that there could be notable problems with making state board elections partisan.

Why not come up with a more democratic non-partisan procedure for nominating candidates for board office? Why do we have to turn things over to the Republicans in our unbalanced one party state?

Going from one Soviet-esque nominating method to another doesn't seem like a recipe for good government to me.

We'll answer you questions in two or more separate replies.

Reply #1
As far as the "Republican Party organ that [the association] is", here is a list of MAJOR issues where we have opposed Republican Party leadership:

- earmarking general fund dollars for roads and rails (we oppose)

- tax dollars for soccer stadium (we opposed)

- differential pay for teachers (we support it, House leadership killed it)

- UTOPIA/iProvo (we opposed)

- Equitable funding for charter schools (we support. They oppose)

- Congestion pricing (we support. they don't)

- Increased gas tax and reduced general taxes (we support. they oppose)

- Severe restrictions on subsidies for retail (we support. they support in a very limited way)

- Comprehensive roads/rails prioritization process based on cost-effectiveness of reducing congestion (we support. they support on a VERY small scale)

- Prohibiting additional earmarked "user" fees on telephone bills (these are not user fees even though they are imposed as if they were and are earmarked for specific purposes)

- TRAX line to the airport (we oppose because it will not reduce congestion -- there is none and airport employees commute during off-peak hours -- and it is not a cost-effective way to promote tourism

- increased reliance on local taxes to fund state roads (we oppose)

If Democrats want to help us on these issues, they know how to contact us. We've contacted them, and they say don't call us, we'll call you.

Applicable state code: 20A-14-104

Huntsman's education deputy Christine Kearl selected the committee.

As bad as you or others may feel the partisan process is, it is much better than the current system. At least in the current system, candidates normally debate each other, talk to delegates etc.

As far as the one-party state comment, we think former state GOP chairman Joe Cannon said it best: "Utah has three political parties, and I am chairman of two of them."

The last paragraph of our first comment should have read "If Democrats want us to help them..."

Thank goodness for those "insiders" you're talking about.

What a laugh to say that vouchers don't have anything to do with it.

If it looks and smells like crap then its probably crap.

You're right. The current system is crap. Thanks for articulating your opinion so well.

Why not just make the State Board election like the Local Board election? That seems to work pretty well without party attachment.

All candidates run in a Primary and the top two run in the General.

Is that too easy?

Since the State Board only meets once a month, they really don't have time to allow politics to infiltrate their work.

While I too dislike the current system, your characterization of it is a bit biased.

The nominating and recruiting committee is defined in section 20A-14-104. Its members are nominated by the governor (so if it's "stacked with UEA interests", blame the gov). The committee membership is designed to be half business, half education interests. UTA-like interests had few complaints in 2004 (when few ed reps showed up, and they controlled the committee), but complained loudly in 2006 when they didn't have as free a reign.

Any claim of "brazen manipulation" must rest solely on the governor's office, as he is responsible for selecting the committee each election cycle.

So... you're blaming the governor? A rather bold move given his approval ratings. Or, are you blaming the legislators which gave us the law (SB154-S5 [2003], SB185-S1 [2004])?

Or, is this historical misrepresentation simply an argument for a partisan board? As much as I dislike the committee approval approach, I don't think partisan elections would improve the visibility of board elections. I would welcome a shift to open, non-partisan elections, including a primary. Keep the committee as a recruiting tool, if you like, but don't give them power to remove candidates.

Why not have State Board members elected in the same manner as Local Board members. You know, all the candidates in the Primary and the top two in the General. It seems to work pretty well. No need for party attachment.

The State Board only meets once a month for a day. They can't afford to waste time on politics. Besides, party politics doesn't always produce a better product.


So far, no one, including you, has given a legitimate explanation as to why the partisan process is good enough to elect presidents, governors, congressmen, legislators, county commissioners, but not state school board members.

Naturally, most board incumbents will oppose this proposal because they are afraid to go through the partisan gauntlet. The current process attracts so few candidates that it's much easier to get elected. Naturally, incumbents don't want more people to file.

You proposal for non-partisan races is not much different that the status quo. The races will still be low profile, and very few people will file. The UEA will be the only organization actively recruiting candidates for state school board races.

Already, opponents of the partisan process are complaining about the "extremists" running the two parties, but that's just a smoke screen.

Regarding Huntsman, since when do high approval ratings absolve someone from being blamed or criticized?

Yes, the governor's office, or ultimately the governor himself, shares responsibility in this. However, we have learned that these actions were done without the governor's knowledge, approval, or understanding.

Finally, you have a lot of nerve accusing us or anyone for that matter of historical misrepresentation when you misrepresented our position on gas taxes a couple of weeks ago on your blog. Fortunately you back tracked when we called you on it.


Since your questions are remarkably similar, we'll answer them at the same time.

The non-partisan process for electing local school boards is hardly ideal. Again, these are low profile races in which very few candidates file. Most of those that do are UEA loyalists.

We've dealt with local school board members for decades and their lobbyists on the Hill. Most are well-intentioned people. However, there is very little philosophical diversity on local school boards.


We didn't maninpulate the process in 2004. You can't call it manipulation when the other side just doesn't show up.


If you want to argue that the process failed in 2004 and 2006, fine. Then let's scrap the nominating committee altogether and implement a process that currently works for electing governor, congressmen, legislators et al.

I appreciate your willingness to approve my previous comment (it was held for moderation because of the link), despite my vehement disagreement with your conclusion.

You are correct--high approval ratings do not exempt one from criticism. My point, which I didn't make well, is that if you are going to claim "brazen manipulation", you need to be willing to lay the charge at the feet of the person responsible for the process. What I read in the article was a bit of hand waving suggesting the UEA is the boogey-man, and that vague unnamed forces subverted the process for their own ends. It's fear-mongering. It's FUD. It makes for heated political arguments and divisiveness without leading to better solutions.

My frustration at your post came not just from what I perceived to be biased, emotional language in your interpretation of the previous rounds of the committee's existence. It was also the jump from "what we have now is bad" to "therefore, this proposal, which would change the process is good," with no bridge in between. We agree the current process should be changed, but that alone is insufficient to make the logical leap that the partisan proposal is the best solution.

Perhaps there is a simpler paths to take: wait out 2008. If the experience of the 2006 committee was a "learning opportunity" for our new governor, maybe we should wait and see what the results are when he is better aware of the responsibilities of his office. Perhaps when the time comes to form the committee at the end of this year, interested individuals/organizations can provide gentle reminders beforehand rather than accusations afterward.

In newspaper articles, some legislators have suggested the partisan process would put candidates in better touch with their constituency. Perhaps, but it would also distance them from part of their constituency. The focus would be on a seeking approval of a few delegates rather than all voters. An open primary would require much broader interaction.

I've mentioned this previously, but State Board members have occasion to meet with Board members from other states. If you can conceive of a system of selecting members (appointments, elections, mixture, etc.), there is likely a state that does it. Consistently every member I spoken with on the subject from other states that have partisan boards have lamented that their board's partisanship prevents most action. My experience is shared by many other Utah members. If we consider the increased overhead (in time to action) brought on by almost doubling the size of the Board (part of the current proposal that you have not argued for/against), it makes me wonder what the actual intent of the proposal is.

It is disheartening to see that anybody believes our current system of electing government officials “works.” Look around you. The two party catastrophe has given us nothing but gridlock in Washington, a state government so lopsided it may just tip over and an Attorney General who apparently can’t even interpret the laws he is supposed to enforce. You call that working?

Politics right now is a poisonous cesspool of fundraising and special interest devotion. Corruption is rampant and our Constitutions are circumvented more and more every year. If our founding fathers could see the mess we have made of their nation, they would turn their heads in shame. By all means, bring this wonderful working gem to the State board.


While it's true that the buck statutorily stops at the governor's desk, the governor's EDUCATION deputy, who is without question part of the education establishment, is responsible for the 2006 mess. Executives, including governors, have to rely on subordinates to do their job. In this case, an establishment person stacked the committee and manipulated the process.

The "bridge in between" is the fact that the partisan process does broaden the applicant pool and the public discussion. No one can honestly argue against that.

You argue that the partisan process would have candidates focus on a few delegates instead of all voters. There are at least two problems with that statement:

1. The number of delegates exceeds the number of committee people by a couple orders of magnitude. Therefore, the current system requires candidates to, at least initially, focus on a smaller group of candidates.

2. In a partisan process, candidates would still have to go through a general election.


We guess it's all relative. The partisan process -- which is far from perfect -- or the current system which is even worse.

You misunderstood the comparison I was trying to make--when I spoke of increased (decreased) community I was intending to compare partisan elections to an open general election (my preference), suggesting the delegate system would have less citizen involvement than an open primary.

How about using a proportional or semi-proportional electoral system (can be partisan or non-partisan) to elect State Board of Education members?

Such a method would more easily allow the election of taxpayer advocates to the State Board of Education (and local school boards) to provide a check against the tax eaters.

These electoral methods are used for school board elections in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts and Amarillo, Texas.

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