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News | Hack Attack: Insider system for choosing school board ensures the blandest candidates. 

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Once upon a time in Utah, people were running amok campaigning for school boards they had no interest in whatsoever. Or maybe they had too much interest in them; in the wacky way our terrorists of today have too much interest in fertilizer.n

But this is America, and the right to fertilizer is as God-given as trans fats. Follow me?

If not, you’re probably among those who don’t quite get the deal of giving up your right to vote just because you might elect a nutcase. Like, when was that a criterion?

Anyway, Utah has ended up with a convoluted system by which a committee of 12 “leaders” in education and business choose three names for each of the 15 districts, and then send them to the governor. He in turn chooses two to run in each district. For the second time in recent election history, incumbents have been booted out, and for murky reasons.

This kind of behavior gets conspiracy theorists talking. “I think part of their intent was to make the process look bad so everybody would want it changed,” says Carol Lear, director of school law for the Utah Office of Education. Though Lear isn’t typically given to conspiracy theory.

Kim Burningham, a 10-year board member and former legislator, was just as impolitic. “The current system is the most easily manipulated system, and that was demonstrated this year and four years ago,” he says.

Worse yet, once the two incumbents were bounced, Gov. John Huntsman Jr. came back and de-selected another, Teresa Theurer. Then, in an oops-I-didn’t-mean-it move, Huntsman turned around and appointed Theurer to the state board of regents.

The true believers in conspiracy think Huntsman was in on it from the beginning, trying to show the system at its worst and how it can be easily manipulated. Huntsman’s spokeswoman Lisa Roskelly, simply affirmed that the governor favors direct election of the state school board. Period.

So how in the world did we get into this situation? “The committee is stacked; it’s so heavily weighted toward much more conservative people—pro-voucher, right wing—and their preferential treatment, that frequently their third place choice is the most highly qualified person,” says Burningham, himself a moderate Republican.

Way back when, the governor appointed a kind of informal board through recommendations from conventions or local school boards. This was a little too loose for some people, and in 1952, the system changed to an elected board.

This move was fraught with the messy problems of democracy, and indeed, some interesting candidates won election. The quintessential huckster was Harold Jensen of Gunnison, who publicly stated that he was in it for the government benefits and thought Utah should just warehouse kids with special-education needs. And then there was Sen. Orrin Hatch’s infamous sister, Francis Hatch Merrill.

Merrill kept getting re-elected despite a combatant personality and ultraconservative bent, which won her few friends in education. In 1992, the number of districts changed from nine to 15, and local nominating committees were to send names to the governor for sifting. Since boundaries also were changed, Merrill charged that the establishment was out to get her, was biased against women and, you know, liberal.

In between all of this, then-Rep. Rob Bishop (now our 1st District congressman) sought tirelessly to eliminate the constitutional provision requiring a state school board. He eventually supported the nominating committee concept.

The rationale then was much as it is now: the electorate doesn’t pay attention to the bottom of the ballot and they often elect stupid people. Still an ’80s Deseret News poll showed hefty support for direct elections, despite the fact that only one in 70 people could name their school board representative.

The committee concept changed again in 2003, when the Legislature consolidated the local committees into its one big, insider group.

Burningham doesn’t buy whatever the rationale was.” We’ve lost the public’s right to have a decision, he says. “It’s true, the public finally gets to vote on two, but if those two are so biased in one direction, the public has no choice.”

Instead, the public relies on what he calls “political hacks” from retail, telecommunications, banking and such to tell them how to vote.

Indeed, that gives the real wackos a foot in the electoral door. But our esteemed electorate has been voting for wackos on all levels for more than 200 years. It’s the American way. tttt

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

Bio:
A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses and Citizen Revolt columns. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

More by Katharine Biele

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