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Utah Supreme Court says partisan school board elections are OK

Posted at 2:52 PM, Sep 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-12 16:52:50-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has given the go-ahead to partisan school board elections.

In a unanimous ruling issued Wednesday night, the state’s top court overturned a lower court’s decision blocking state school board elections based on political party.

“The question before us is not whether SB 78 is good public policy: that’s a question for the citizens of Utah, speaking through their duly elected representatives. No, the question before us is whether SB 78 violates the Utah Constitution. It does not,” wrote Justice Deno Himonas.

The Utah State Legislature passed a bill in 2016 allowing state school board elections to be partisan. It was challenged by education groups and sitting state school board member Carol Lear. They argued that it violated the state constitution which prohibits any kind of a “religious or partisan” test for education employment.

The state countered that school board members aren’t employees, so they aren’t subject to that provision of the Constitution.

“Although some ambiguity may exist regarding the Board members status as employees, the Utah Constitution—both in the original 1896 enactments and the 1986 amendments pertaining to the organization and definition of the ‘state’s education systems’—omits Board members from being in a condition of employment in the state’s education systems,” Justice Himonas wrote.

The liberal think tank Alliance for a Better Utah, which joined education groups in the lawsuit supporting non-partisan school board elections, said it was disappointed.

“We continue to firmly believe that partisan politics has no place in our schools. We have always believed that our children’s education should be insulated from the extreme partisanship that grips our nation and is making inroads into our state,” said Josh Kanter, the group’s board chairman.

“Are we disappointed? Of course. But we respect the decision made by the distinguished justices who sit on the Utah Supreme Court. While the Court disagreed with our arguments on constitutional interpretation, the justices made clear they were not making a judgment on whether or not the law is good public policy. A majority of Utahns believe that school board elections should not be partisan. Moving forward from this decision, we ask lawmakers to listen to their constituents and restore nonpartisan school board elections before the 2020 elections.”

Read the ruling here: