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Senate panel rejects partisan school board mandate

Image by Donkey Hotey/Creative Commons

State senators on January 25 quashed legislation designed to ensure that parents and others can protest outside school board meetings without fear of arrest. 

SB1010 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,” she said. “And that voter can ask questions.” 

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. 

“‘Partisanship’ shouldn’t be a dirty word,” Ugenti-Rita said. 

But Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, pointed to the 12 years he served on the Coolidge school board. He said had elections been partisan affairs, it is unlikely that the community, with its Democratic edge, would ever have supported him. 

The 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 exemption from state laws that make it a crime to interfere with the 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. 

More to the point, Ugenti-Rita said there have been situations where school boards call police to have protesters removed from the campus. 

“So, we were not allowed to protest on the property,” she told colleagues. And that, Ugenti-Rita said, undermines the reason for turning out in the first place. 

“I’ve experienced it,” she said. 

“They call the cops,” Ugenti-Rita continued. And the whole ability of school boards to kick protesters off property “gets weaponized and gets used as a tool.” 

Other lawmakers said it’s not that simple, what with issues of liability to the district if something happens on school property. 

Marsh suggested that one option would be to require those who want to protest on campus to get a permit and get insurance, just like anyone else who wants to have an event on school property. But Ugenti-Rita said protests often happen on short notice, such as after parents see a particular item on a school board agenda and then reach out to others to express their opposition. 

“The whole point of spontaneous protest is it’s spontaneous,” said Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale. 

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