Responding to charges against partisan school board elections

I sent this letter to state delegates today and am publishing it to help the public have an opportunity to see some of the arguments against partisan elections, and my responses to those charges.


Dear Delegates,

I hope you all took some time to read through my email from a couple days ago to help provide some support for my resolution, particularly the Deseret News piece which was excellent. After my email the other day, I received a number of very supportive comments for the resolution for partisan school board elections, and some questions from delegates. Some of those questions relate to things said on Doug Wright’s radio show from Tuesday. I listened to his show and below is a brief rundown of concerns presented there and my responses. However, first, do you know about the power of the UEA network which is threatened by this resolution and why they are trying so hard to oppose it.

This week the Utah School Board Association has asked for state delegates to contact the USBA Chair so they can speak against this resolution.  This is exactly what makes the case IN FAVOR of this resolution. The USBA is free to ask its members to support a particular position.  However, without partisan elections, what organization exists with the same ability to disseminate information to combat the USBA, the USSA (superintendents), the UASBO (business administrators), the UEA, the Elementary Principals’ Association (UAESP), the Secondary Principals’ Association (UASSP), the Utah School Employees’ Association (USEA–Lunch ladies, custodians, bus drivers, librarians, school nurses, etc)?  All these organizations receive dues, many from taxpayer dollars, like USBA, and have paid people to lobby for or against legislation and for or against candidates.  One email to the membership of all these organizations would cover the state, very easily.  The only other organizations that have as broad of a reach statewide are the political parties, Democrats and Republicans.

The main reason why these organizations don’t want partisan elections is that it will create more opposition (competition) in them being able to get their information out.   Additionally, if you look at the USBA scorecard, those who voted with the USBA 90% of the time were all Democrats.  You had to get down to a much lower percentage to find Republicans who voted with the USBA. Speaker Lockhart was in the 30’s, I think.  For the GOP, this needs to be pointed out.  Absent partisan elections, the state will continue to provide the Education Associations an uncontested messaging system.  Even if partisan elections are problematic in some realms, the ability to inform voters on both sides of an issue, like in a courtroom, demands opposing parties strongly advocating for their positions.  Then the jury (or the voters) can make informed decisions.  If you only get to hear one side of the argument being vigorously defended, do you have an informed decision?

The point isn’t partisanship, the point is hearing messaging from both sides of an issue and having an organization able to widely disseminate that information to its members to allow for that to occur.  As the State GOP, it should be realized that leaving the Education Associations unmatched, the message that is getting out is that supported, primarily, by Democrats. 

Now on to the Doug Wright show. During his third hour on Tuesday, Doug thankfully acknowledged on several occasions that the current system is broken.

He had two guests on his show. One was Mark Mickelsen, the executive director of the UEA, and then Patti Harrington, an Associate Executive Director of the Utah School Boards Association. You get one guess where his guests stood on this issue. :)


Doug: “What is the UEA’s opinion of turning school board races into partisan races?”

Mark: UEA supports non-partisan elections for the reason thatit’s probably the most transparent, engaging, and representative process for establishing education policy in the state.


My comment: Are you kidding?. We already have non-partisan elections locally for school boards, and there is a huge lack of interest in those races, people aren’t engaged, and it’s certainly not representative when you have a single education establishment party that is organized to elect their picks. At least with partisan elections, you get a cross sample of the public in every precinct who are tasked with finding who the candidates are with the best ideas that will help our schools. It’s also more transparent because you know who is promoting and vetting candidates. Nobody sees the UEA network working behind the scenes because they are not a registered political party, but they certainly wield power like one. Engaging? What is more engaging than thousands of delegates asking tough questions of candidates? Where does that EVER happen in non-partisan races? It doesn’t. Everything Mark said above is precisely why partisan elections are superior to non-partisan elections.


Thankfully Mark then acknowledges the election process for state school board members is in fact broken. So basically, the current system is broken, and they want non-partisan elections. Why? Please review the top few paragraphs above.

Doug Wright then talks about how he’s been guilty of not knowing who was running for school board. He then accurately notes “far too many of us, when we do vote, this is the area where we have the least familiarity…”

My comment: Doug is exactly right. School board races fly under the radar. People don’t generally get excited about these races because they’re more focused on the “big races.” Not many people get excited about the county clerk race or county assessor or school board member. However, two of those 3 are able to run low cost campaigns where people actually come and ask them questions and cast an informed, broadly representational vote for someone. Meanwhile, most people remain ignorant about what is perhaps the most important race in the state because it deals so strongly with our future.


Doug: “Why will making the races partisan make it worse?” (than the current broken system)

Mark: He spoke in favor of SB 54 which was the bill that stopped the Count My Vote initiative by basically giving them what they wanted to bypass the parties, and said the resolution is in direct opposition to this resolution. (ie. Mark supports Count My Vote)

My comment: No surprise here that Mark favors Count My Vote, but this also isn’t even a reason partisan races will make what they already identified as a broken system, even worse.


Doug:one big concern, one huge concern, I don’t like the straight ballot vote… I think everyone who throw their hats in the ring…sacrifice their family makes…deserves the courtesy of having everyone at least read their name.” Doug believes if we have partisan elections, “the lazy voter will just hit the R or D and automatically votes for people they’ve probably never even heard their name which really concerns me.”

My comment: Of course, we hope all people would get involved and informed, but the lazy voter Doug identifies here isn’t someone who is going to know who is even running in a non-partisan election, so at least with a party by a candidate’s name they can vote for someone who is probably closer to their ideological position.


Mark: “There’s another issue, I received some information from a practicing attorney here in Utah, and one of the comments he made that I found very interesting that partisanship may be unconstitutional based on Article 10 section 8 of the Utah constitution.

Mark then quotes this section which is:

“Article X, Section 8. [No religious or partisan tests in schools.]

No religious or partisan test or qualification shall be required as a condition of employment, admission, or attendance in the state’s education systems.”

My comment: Now I don’t know who this attorney is that sent Mark this concern, but a proper reading of this doesn’t support this interpretation. Nobody is required to be of a given religion or political party to be a school board member. Also, the same exact language exists in the U.S. Constitution. Article 6, section 3 says:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

What is a test? The Framers set this in the Constitution because they never wanted a litmus test for office where only a single religious preference could hold office  like they suffered under in England (ie. The Church of England). That’s a violation of freedom of conscience of individuals. Article X, Section 8 of the Utah code is simply asserting the same exact thing that there can’t be a religious or partisan “test” for office. We can’t say, “only a Republican or Mormon can hold this school board seat.” It would be unconstitutional and immoral to do something like that, but having partisan votes for school board candidates to see who will go to the ballot for a given party is perfectly constitutional because the ballot doesn’t represent employment, admission, or attendance.


Patti Harrington from USBA now comes on the show.

Patti: She expresses her fear that party members who swear allegiance to a party platform could be making decisions that are about the party instead of about the children.

My comment: When I vetted candidates for county clerk, I didn’t ask them “if it comes down to a decision that comes to you directly from the GOP party, are you going to be loyal to the party, or do what’s right for taxpayers?” That would be a stupid question to ask. I heard none of my fellow delegates ask such stupid questions. It’s not on anyone’s mind except those trying to dissuade the party from creating a competitive environment for the current monopoly. If I was a delegate and had 3 school board candidates to vet, I’d ask them their philosophy on education, what principles they feel makes for a good education system, how they would enhance the ability of a teacher to work more directly with parents and students, and so on. Partisan elections aren’t about partisanship, they are about getting a marketplace of ideas to compete with each other and see what cream rises to the top. Yes, it’s about the children and partisan elections will help make their future brighter.


Patti: on state board elections “so that process universally…is considered broken.”

My comment: 3 for 3 now in agreement the current process is broken.


Doug: “Patti, what are the downsides/upsides to local partisan elections”

Patti: “I don’t see any upsides.”

My comment: People in the education establishment of course wouldn’t see any upsides because partisan elections represent a loss of power to the single party network that covers the state and with a single email can reach all their members with an endorsement of a candidate. The only people that can stand against this well organized party, is another political party. Nobody else is so well organized.


Doug: said he read a couple editorials and shared these quotes:

“Candidates when they are running on a partisan basis tend to look to the party officials and party needs rather than the needs of the students and the parents.”

“It brings into the school system the overheated rhetoric of the state house campaigns. It brings that now into our schools.”

My comment: My first response is, have these people even looked at the broad range of voting by Republican lawmakers in Utah? It’s all over the board with some conservative and some voting to the left of many Democrats. Once in office, people tend to follow their own agenda, not the party. With $4.6 billion at stake in education spending in Utah, the UEA establishment likes their virtual monopoly on board seats.


Doug: “we are already sadly, too many of us, clueless about who is running for the school board and this will make us even more clueless.”

My comment: Actually, it will have the exact opposite effect. As Doug noted above, even he doesn’t know who his school board members are. Nobody vets them except the UEA. Making elections partisan will give far more people a “clue” about who is running and what their principles are.

I sincerely hope you will vote for this resolution on Saturday and help bring a fresh new perspective to the education system in Utah. Lets get the best ideas out there to rise to the top and make Utah the best education system in the country.


Oak Norton


3 thoughts on “Responding to charges against partisan school board elections”

  1. Tamara,

    I have tried to reach out many of the local school board members and ask them their thoughts/defense of this resolution.

    So far the only defence that I have heard is ” I am just leaving town, so I don’t have time to meet before Saturday. I would like to see education at a greater local control with even less politics. I’m not sure a partisan vetting process does that. My biggest concern is that members of any school board have their number one priority as the children in their district. Partisan or not.”

    Two defenses that they bring up are 1. Let’s keep politics out of it. 2. We have to put children first.

    Does the local school board, and those who put them on the ballot have an agenda? When the Governor appoints two names to put on the ballot does he not have an agenda? When the School board recommends names to the governor do they not have an agenda?
    The UEA has and agenda. The governor has an agenda. Whether you and I agree with it or not. It is there. Just right now it is a one party agenda controlled mainly by the teacher’s union who pick their candidates who support what the union wants.

    So is it not a false argument to say that introducing partisanship will do harm to the system, because is already there? Just right now it is a one party system?

    Second argument is that we always have to put the children first.
    So saying that introducing partisanship onto the process would put children second? People don’t run for SCHOOL board becasue they don’t care about children. So are they trying to imply that if someone has an R behind thier name they will some how be less caring about school? I think this is another false argument.

  2. ….only to have my voice mocked and overridden by people who don’t know my students from Adam. I am tired of hearing district people try to tell us what is good for our students! They don’t know them. They haven’t had discussions with parents nor have they learned the ins and outs of the social projections that come into a student’s progress. Our children need protecting. I will refuse to work in ANY district that doesn’t allow me to PROTECT my students from unfair testing, harmful prejudgements about them, and I am thoroughly on the PARENT’S side in this argument.
    (Sorry my computer gliche sent the first half of this while I was typing!)

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