Senate panel kills proposal for partisan school board elections

By Howard Fischer |  Capitol Media Services 

State senators on Tuesday quashed legislation designed to ensure that parents and others can protest outside school board meetings without fear of arrest.

SB 1010 was killed on a 4-4 vote as Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, sided with the three Democrats on the Senate Education Committee who were opposed to the measure.

But what apparently killed the legislation was not so much the questions about protest rights but a bid by its sponsor, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, to also convert all future school board races to partisan affairs. She said that is designed to address a problem with the current system.

“I’m not sure that parents know exactly what these school board members believe, what they think,” she said. And Ugenti-Rita said candidates having an R or a D — or whatever — behind their names will make a difference.

“Having to identify yourself with your party helps communicate to a potential voter where you stand. And that voter can ask questions.”

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita

Pace, who has on occasion balked at toeing the party line, said that is based on the faulty assumption that those who are registered Republican, as he is, will all vote the same.

Tuesday’s vote, however, may not be the end of the issue of protecting protest rights.

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said she recognizes that parents and others have been abused by school boards who want to keep protesters far away.

“I, too, have been relegated to street corners,” she said. And Marsh indicated that she would support a resurrected version of the measure — one without changing how school board elections are conducted.

What Ugenti-Rita wants is an an exemption from state laws that make it a crime to interfere with operation of an educational institution if people are engaged in “peaceful protesting after school hours.” It also spells out that those who want to protest do not have to first obtain a permit or any other permission from the local school board.

The vote by the Senate Education Committee comes amid heightened tensions both in Arizona and nationally as school boards debate controversial issues ranging from masking and remote learning to teaching of what some refer to as “critical race theory.” That has at times resulted in protests by parents unhappy with the decisions being made by board members.

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