Arizona bill would eliminate nonpartisan school boards

Posted 12/4/21

PHOENIX — A veteran Scottsdale lawmaker believes she has a way of helping voters identify who they want to run their school boards.Make candidates run with their party affiliation.

The …

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Arizona bill would eliminate nonpartisan school boards


PHOENIX — A veteran Scottsdale lawmaker believes she has a way of helping voters identify who they want to run their school boards.
Make candidates run with their party affiliation.

The proposal by Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita would scrap the current system where people interested in the unpaid position submit nominating papers and then run against each other in a general election. Instead, all the registered candidates from each party would compete in an August primary, with the winners then facing off in November.

It would be a massive change for the process now used in the more than 200 school districts across the state. It also would put Arizona in the minority of states with a similar system, following only Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

Senate Bill 1010 is drawing a chilly reception from Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association. He said adding partisan labels would detract from the ability of board members to focus on what are issues of how to educate children in the community.

But Ugenti-Rita told Capitol Media Services that is denying the reality that much of what falls within the purview of board members is partisan. She said these range from issues of taxes and budget to curriculum, parental control and even whether schools should remain open during a pandemic.

“This is helping voters understand where someone stands ideologically and politically so they have a better sense of how they’re going to govern and how they’re going to vote,” Ugenti-Rita said.

“This holds elected officials accountable,” she continued. “And this provides additional transparency to the voter.”

Ugenti-Rita said no one thing is behind the move.

But it comes after more than a year of some high-profile battles, often between board members and parents, about things like whether schools should be open for in-person instruction and whether student and faculty should be required to wear face coverings while on campus.

Then there’s what’s become the heated debate over “critical race theory” despite the lack of evidence that the concept — essentially an examination of how the history of racism affects current policies — actually is taught in any Arizona public school.

That has boiled over, with protests that led to the removal of Jann-Michael Greenberg as president of the Scottsdale Unified school board over a dossier he was keeping of parents who protested and recall elections, like an unsuccessful attempt to oust Jon Aitken from the board of the Vail school district over some pandemic-related decisions of the board.

“I think that those who operate in the school board and in the education arena have gotten a little too cocky and taken advantage of the nice position they’ve been in,” Ugenti-Rita said, getting elected without a partisan label.

“And, yet, they’ve acted very political,” she said. “And so I think we should align the system with how these boards have been acting for decades, which is political.”

She said that party labels will help voters understand “where candidates are.”

But Matt Kopec, who serves on the board of Amphi schools in Tucson, said that presumes decisions are made and votes are cast on issues based on partisan politics.

“We don’t look at it through that lens,” he said of Ugenti-Rita’s proposal. “I don’t think it’s really helpful.”

Nor does he believe putting labels on candidates adds anything to an election.

“If we’re running for office, we can explain that to the voters, what we stand for anyway,” Kopec said, telling people what they stand for and what they will do if elected or reelected. “This potential legislation doesn’t change any of that.”

Aitken also is not a fan of what Ugenti-Rita wants to do.

“I think it’s a bad idea because the whole spirit of school boards is to be a nonpartisan thing, to just truly in service to the families and children,” he said. “And what difference does politics make in education?”

But there’s what Aitken said is his more pragmatic side.

“It’s a necessary idea, a necessary evil just because of the reality of the world that we live in now,” he said.

In his case, Aitken said, he has voted with the Democratic and liberal board members through all of the COVID epidemic issues.

“And I think parents, as being part of a democratic society have a right to know that,” he said.

That’s also the assessment of Consuelo Hernandez, who is on the board at Sunnyside Unified School District. But Hernandez, who is a Democrat, has a specific reason for thinking what Ugenti-Rita wants to do would be not only helpful to voters but affect the outcome of elections.

“These past few years across our country and in our home state we have seen how divisive Republicans have made school boards,” she said, fighting over issues like how history can be taught with arguments over critical race theory and whether students should be required to wear masks during the pandemic. “I think people should know your party affiliation so they get an idea of what type of agenda you will bring to our education system.”

And Hernandez said she believes “school board seats have been bought by Republicans” who have not been required to inform voters of their politics.

But Adelita Grijalva, who serves on the Tucson Unified School District board, said the legislation presumes voters don’t already know now each candidate’s political stance and leanings. She said her own affiliation is easily discernible to anyone who looks her up on Google, with the record including her bid as a Democrat for the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

She said that’s irrelevant with the issues being dealt with at the school board level — even if some people want to make it partisan.
“Making whether we’re going to try to keep our children safe a political position has been incredibly frustrating,” Grijalva said. “This is just another way to create even more partisanship in our already pretty fractured community.”

What Ugenti-Rita is seeking to impose in some ways runs counter to what fellow Republicans tried to do more than a decade ago.

In 2009, Jonathan Paton, then a state senator from Tucson, convinced the Republican-controlled legislature to forbid candidates for local office from running with party labels. Paton argued issues important to local voters, like fixing potholes and picking up trash, are not partisan.

But there also was a partisan reason behind the measure: Patron conceded he believed more Republicans would get elected in Tucson, a city with a Democratic majority, if they didn’t have to run with the party label.

As it turned out, the Arizona Supreme Court voided the law, declaring that the legislature has no right to tell charter cities like Tucson how to conduct their elections.

Ugenti-Rita said there’s no comparison between what Paton tried to do then with cities and what she’s proposing now for school boards.

“This is already very political,” she said.

“Let’s just get real and deal with reality,” Ugenti-Rita continued. “And school boards are political.”


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  • gimpygal

    This is perhaps the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard. If ever there was a genuine purpose for nonpartisan elections it is governing our schools. We must fix the real issues; not exacerbate them.

    Monday, December 6, 2021 Report this