A new bill would put school board elections on partisan ballots, forcing board candidates to declare a party affiliation.
It would also clear the way for political activities including protests on school grounds, as long as they take place outside of school hours.
The bill, pre-filed on December 1 by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, came a day after conservative candidates descended on Scottsdale’s Coronado High School to lambast a Scottsdale Unified School District board member and denounce what they called Critical Race Theory in public school curriculums.
Arizona conservatives are increasingly seeing education issues like parental involvement and controversial curriculum items as potent political opportunities. The bill, SB1010, could provide an early look at how they plan to translate those talking points into legislative action.
Also on December 1, Gov. Doug Ducey said he expected legislation in the coming session related to school districts and “parents’ rights.”
“I expect there’s going to be accountability at the school board level,” Ducey said, though he declined to give more details, adding that he would say more in his State of the State Address, set for next month.
Ugenti-Rita told the Arizona Capitol Times that rather than promoting partisanship, the bill is actually intended to promote transparency.
“We should stop vilifying politics, because it’s embedded in our system,” she said. “We should be encouraging that kind of forthcomingness and transparency.”
Ugenti-Rita said the proposal to loosen restrictions on political use of school property wasn’t related to recent events at the Scottsdale district, but she said that critics had been “shut out” of board meetings.
Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for the Arizona School Boards Association, panned the proposed legislation, while adding that it’s ultimately up to ASBA members to decide whether the bill gets the thumbs up or down from the organization.
The majority of school board work has to do with poring over budgets and other administrative tasks, he said.
“If your only motivation for governing board service is because you think kids in your school system are learning the wrong stuff, and you want to make sure they learn the, quote-unquote, right stuff, and you have no interest in the rest of the rest of the job … I think that’s wrong.”
As for the expanded allowance for political activities on campuses, Kotterman said existing prohibitions exist for a reason – to keep public schools as a neutral space.
“I just think that turning the school campus, after hours, into essentially an unlimited public forum, is going to lead to problems.” he said.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, chairs the Senate Education Committee and said in an emailed statement that he wasn’t ready to take a position on the bill yet. Boyer has said he won’t seek re-election and hasn’t been shy about breaking ranks with party leadership in the past.
Ducey spokesman C.J Karamargin also declined to comment specifically on SB1010.
While political tensions around school districts have ratcheted up across the country in the wake of the Covid pandemic, they seem to have boiled over in Arizona recently with the fallout from a scandal at the Scottsdale district.
Last month, news broke that the father of board member Jann-Michael Greenburg had compiled information on parents who’d voiced concerns to the district. Conservative politicians quickly jumped into the fray and linked the controversy to other explosive topics, like criticism of so-called Critical Race Theory.
On November 30, gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, U.S. Senate candidate Jim Lamon and state Rep. Joseph Chaplik of Scottsdale, all Republicans, planned a rally to take place at Coronado High School, where the district governing board was set to meet.
Promotional materials for the event said it would take place at the high school, but didn’t specify exactly where. On November 29, a school district attorney warned Lake, Lamon and a parent involved in the event that state law prohibits political activity on school property, though they could use the sidewalk on the edge of campus.
That’s where the rally was eventually held, drawing about 100 people to hear Lake, Lamon and Chaplik speak from the back of a pickup truck. Down the street, about 40 counter protestors gathered in support of the district.
At the board meeting, with no political candidates present, the atmosphere was tense, but largely composed. Some parents said politicians were taking advantage of the situation for political gain, while others called for Greenburg to leave the board.
Pat Norton, a former teacher in Mesa who was at Coronado High School on November 30 to collect signatures for a petition to push Greenburg off the board, said she was dismayed by the state of affairs at the district, mentioning books that were part of the curriculum and parent input about facemask use, as well as Greenburg’s conduct.
Denny Brown, a former board member who attended the counter protest in support of the district, said folks criticizing Greenburg and the district were the same ones responsible for declining performance at the district in areas like special education, though he said Greenburg made a mistake. “Some mistakes were made and the way of the world, oh my God, people are jumping on that like this is crazy,” Brown said.
Camryn Sanchez contributed reporting.