by Howard Stephenson

Surveys have repeatedly shown that most people don’t know the names of their elected representatives, even though a majority voted for them.  The higher the candidates are on the ballot, the greater the likelihood that people can name them once they’re elected.  Presidents, governors, U.S. senators, and congressmen are named accurately more often than local officials.

A majority of those surveyed cannot name their county commissioner, county mayor, county councilman or city councilman.  Legislators are almost anonymous to the man or woman on the street, notwithstanding the fact that legislators think they’re pretty famous.  Legislators don’t realize that people call out their names at parades because their names are stuck in large letters on the side of the convertible, not because anyone recognizes them.  Besides, smart parade-goers know that a politician is more likely to throw salt water taffy or double-bubble their way when they shout the name of the guy in the car.  They say we all like the sound of our own names and it’s especially true of legislators.  Loud cheering produces more candy throwing too.

But there’s a group of elected officials even more anonymous than legislators: school board members.  This anonymity is especially true for the state school board.  That’s why the Utah legislature has established a law to ensure greater visibility in the selection of state school board members.

Obtaining a Visible, Qualified  State School Board

This effort toward improved awareness and accountability of state school board members began in 1995 with Congressman Rob Bishop when he was speaker of the Utah House of Representatives.  He recognized that very few candidates filed to run for state school board and consequently, the board was not exactly the highest caliber of elected official.  Believe it or not, natural selection – survival of the fittest – works to improve representative democracy.  This lack of competition also enabled special interests to control the votes on the state school board.

Bishop set in place a process by which the governor placed names on the ballot for this non-partisan board.  The nomination procedures have been modified over the years to require a 12-member nominating panel to submit three candidate names to the governor for each position up for vote.  The governor then pares the number down to two candidates for the November ballot. This process has vastly improved the quality of school board members and has pulled business leaders and other qualified persons out of their private worlds and in to the very important arena of education policy. The fifteen member state school board is established by the Utah Constitution and given authority for the general governance of public education in the state.  Some legal minds have suggested that the Constitutional authority of the State School Board is greater than authority of the legislature when it comes to laws governing public education.  This is not an insignificant body.  Education is our future, and the body which governs education vitally affects our future.

Unlike partisan elections in county races, statewide offices and legislative races, there is no political party process for recruiting and nominating state school board members.  Consequently, few candidates sign up to run.  Speaker Bishop could have crafted his legislation to make school board races partisan and the parties would then ensure candidate recruitment, but he instead created a broad-based nominating committee which submitted three names for the governor to place two names on the November ballot.

The process has been amended a few times, but finally voters are ensured that they will have a choice of qualified candidates on the ballot for state school board.  That is, until this year.

The election law has been ignored this year

The law requires that a 12-member recruiting and nominating panel be formed by November 1 of the year prior to the election to give the committee ample time to do the recruiting of candidates.  The committee was not formed until March, just days prior to the candidate filing deadline.   The committee is required to meet and submit three names for each of the eight state school board slots up for election this year.  The committee never met and consequently did not submit the three names for each position as required by law.  The law requires the governor to pare the three names to two for the November ballot.  Unfortunately, the governor could not pick the best two candidates in each race because none of the eight races had more than two candidates file and three had only one candidate file.  In those three districts, voters have no choice over who represents them on the state school board and in the other districts, the process required by law to ensure high-quality candidates was not followed.

I believe the lieutenant governor and his elections office need to comply with the law by extending the filing deadline for state school board candidates so the recruiting committee and the governor can do their job.