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AZ lawmakers advance bill to create partisan school board races

Republican lawmakers advanced a bill that would make nonpartisan school board races partisan. And the bill’s sponsor says she wants even more elections to feature politically partisan candidates.

Senate Bill 1097 would require school board candidates to disclose their party affiliationto voters —  something school officials, like the Arizona School Boards Association, and legislative Democrats oppose. 

But Sen. Justine Wadsack (R-Tucson) says she wants to take the idea even further because it lets voters make more informed decisions.

“We should have partisan, maybe, partisan judges, maybe we should do partisan everybody, because right now the world is split, I think, and you have people that want to live their lives by one ideology and others that want to live by another, and they get to choose,” Wadsack said.

“Where they want to be where they want to live where they send their children, which fire district they go to; all of that is determined by political ideology,” she said, later adding that city elections should also be partisan.

Barry Aarons, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents, said that the bill would unnecessarily polarize local elections. 

“If you have a partisan designation it restricts you because you become slavishly devoted to your partisan base, and it restricts you on coming up with consensus on issues and school board issues should be consensus issues not partisan battlegrounds,” he said. 

A similar measure sponsored by former GOP lawmaker Michelle Ugenti-Rita failed to clear its first hearing vote in 2022, when then Republican Sen. Tyler Pace voted against the bill alongside Democrats. Wadsack’s version of the bill passed its first hearing Wednesday on party lines. It is co-sponsored by the Senate president and seven other Republicans.

Democrats who voted against SB 1097 raised the issue of replacing school board members.  In partisan elections, if the office holder leaves their position for any reason, their appointed replacement must be from the same political party. Sen. Christine Marsh (D-Phoenix) said she’s concerned that adding party affiliation to the school board candidates would further narrow the pool of replacements if an elected member leaves office.

There are more than 200 Arizona school districts, and Sen. Ken Bennett (R-Prescott) said sometimes it’s difficult to field enough candidates, especially in rural areas.

“Sometimes you’re looking for a warm body to replace someone,” Bennett said.

Wadsack disagreed. She said the vacancy issue is just “the possibility of something that might happen” and not something that should impact lawmaking, especially since parents in her experience are more engaged than usual in school board activity.

Wadsack said that partisan school board elections in other states lead to higher turnout, citing a conservative think tank. The Foundation for Government Accountability  released a study in 2023 on North Carolina, where there are both partisan and nonpartisan school board elections.

Chris Kotterman with the Arizona School Board Association said it makes sense that voters would select whatever candidate matches their party all the way down the ballot, but said that’s not necessarily a good thing. 

He called partisan elections “bruising affairs” that he doesn’t want to subject the candidates to.

“I don’t think extending that level of rancor downward is an appropriate solution to the problem,” Kotterman said.

Camryn Sanchez is a field correspondent at KJZZ covering everything to do with state politics.