Legislators vote against partisan school board elections & for library, learning materials bills - AZEdNews
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Legislators vote against partisan school board elections & for library, learning materials bills

The Senate Education Committee Discusses And Votes On Bills On Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. Photo Courtesy Of Arizona Capitol Television

A bill that would make school board elections partisan failed in the Senate Education Committee today, while bills on school library books, and banning students’ use of learning materials with sexual content received do pass recommendations by the House Education Committee.

Senate Bill 1010, sponsored by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, which would have limited school restrictions on campus protests after school hours, prohibited school board members from removing peaceful protestors from their meetings, and made the currently nonpartisan school board elections partisan with candidates running in partisan primary elections before facing off in general elections, failed in the Senate Education Committee.

Arizona Capitol Television video: Senate Education Committee Meeting – 1/25/22

Sen. Ugenti-Rita, who is running for Arizona Secretary of State, said SB 1010 will give community members more information before they vote.

“Right now, we have a situation where nobody knows where anybody stands, and you’ve seen the public respond with frustration, they feel like they’re being whiplashed, confused. It’s really because they don’t even know who they’re voting for,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita told azfamily.

But critics say the bill “will inject more politics into the local school board level at a time when the normally quiet meetings have increasingly become partisan battlegrounds over student health and curriculum,” azfamily reports.

“This really was borne out of my experience over the last year as a mom of three kids in the public school system as I and thousands of other parents had to navigate what happened during COVID-19,” said Sen. Ugenti-Rita.

There was a major disconnect between what parents thought school board members believed and what they did with masks, vaccines, and whether schools remained open for instruction or went to remote learning, Sen. Ugenti-Rita said.

“This isn’t an attack on school board or school board members. This is the result of seeing a massive divide between voters thinking they know school board members’ beliefs and school board members’ actions,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said.

Senate Education Vice Chair T. J. Shope asked if the bill considers what happens when there aren’t enough candidates to run for school board.

“I don’t think that will be the case going forward,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said, noting she thinks there will be more candidates running for school board after what happened in the past year.

Sen. Shope said he supports the idea behind the bill, but wants to make sure there is a process in place in case there are not enough candidates for elections.

House Education Chair Paul Boyer said his concern moving forward is if there is a way to let voters know party affiliation without putting them through a primary that forces candidates to “out conservative or out progressive” other candidates.

“Parents are upset, and I think there is a significant lack of transparency on behalf of the school boards,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said. “We had an unprecedented experience, and we need more accountability going forward.”

This bill would lessen the gap between the views of the candidates who get elected and the expectations of the community members who elect them, Sen. Ugenti-Rita said.

“I think this bill will make less people run for school board member,” said Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales.

“It’s different now. Parents have a different level of engagement now,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said. “I think a complement to that is an election process that is more accountable.”

Sen. Ugenti-Rita said school boards were closing their campus to protests and asking them to move down the street, “which negates the whole concept of a protest.”

“It’s hard to make that impact when you’re not on public property,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said.

“There’s a process in place already for protesting if you rent the space and get the legal insurance and maybe we should enforce this,” Sen. Christine Marsh asked, noting that she supports the right for peaceful protest on school property.

“If we’re going to tell parents and people to get involved, we can’t make it burdensome for them to be involved,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said. “Time and time again I saw this happening in PV and Scottsdale.”

House Chair Boyer said he was sympathetic to the idea of spontaneous protest.

“I also have concerns about the whole primary thing,” said Sen. Rick Gray. “But I do think that this part that you’re saying it’s viable, and I thank you for bringing it up.”

House Chair Boyer asked if Sen. Ugenti-Rita would be interested in splitting the ideas into two separate bills, and she said yes.

Sen. Marsh asked who asked parents to leave campus and Sen. Ugenti-RIta said it was police escorting parents off school property at the school board’s request.

“What happens when things become unpeaceful and how do you define peaceful protest,” Sen. Marsh asked.

“If you see something wrong, illegal or dangerous you pick up the phone and do something about it, and this would work the same way,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said.

Sen. Nancy Barto said “I appreciate this bill. I think it is incredibly timely.”

“Practically speaking, you may want to separate them (these issues) to get them through (the legislative process),” Sen. Barto said.

“I think we should try to avoid a primary if we could,” Sen. Barto said. “I think people need some kind of certainty on both sides – school board members need to know what happens when someone crosses that line and what crosses the line and get it in policy.”

“I do think the boards have a policy in place, and it allows them to remove you from school grounds and that’s what I wanted to address here,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said.

“Thank you for your passion. I’m a parent that has protested many times down the street. I do support some measures of this bill, but parameters need to be set in place,” said Sen. Theresa Hatathlie.

Sen. Hatathlie asked if the counties would have to pay for the primary elections.

“Yes, there is a cost to run elections and the counties would be responsible for that and my bill does not address that,” Sen. Ugenti-Rita said. “I don’t think the money should get in the way on this proposal.”

Ryan Boyd with the Arizona Association of Counties said his organization opposed the bill since many school board elections are canceled for not drawing enough candidates.

Tim Carter, superintendent of Yavapai County Education School Agency, said, “The protest issue is covered in state statute and school policy so our concern is in the partisan elections.”

“This is not the solution,” Carter said.

When you get outside of Maricopa County things look very different for school districts across rural Arizona, Carter said.

“This isn’t going to work statewide,” Carter said. “I’ve been in office for 8 years I’ve appointed over 304 school board members, and I’ve never asked their political party,”

If we’re going to have partisan elections for school boards we should also have them for community colleges and other organizations, Carter said.

“There are other ways to deal with these issues than to say it’s partisan,” Carter said. “Does a Democrat in Congress deal with things the same way as a Democrat on the school board in Chinle?”

This is what schools are asking right now, Carter said.

“How do we deal with an aggregate spending limit that’s going to cut 20% of our school budgets in March?” Carter asked

“How to we recruit more teachers?” Carter asked.

“How do we take salary and benefits where we make if equitable to keep these people?” Carter asked.

“How do we find afforable housing for teachers?” Carter asked.

“Nothing in a party platform tells me how to do that. That’s what school board members have to figure out.” Carter said.

“R & D does nothing to tell me what kind of human being you are. Are you going to be at every meeting? Are you going to read your packet?” Carter said. “That’s what we’ve been doing for 110 years, and let’s keep doing it. This is wrong.”

“In Yavapai County, 48 board members have expressed concerns about this to me, and said they have considered not running because of this bill,” Carter said.

Sen. Gray said he appreciated Carter’s passion.

Sen. Gonzales asked what would happen for Independent voters.

Sen. Ugenti-Rita said they’d request a ballot from the county for the partisan primary they wanted to vote in.

Scottsdale resident Craig Hazeltine spoke against the bill saying, “I don’t want to be robbed of local nonpartisan governance.”

“I’m fearful or partisan politics being introduced, because the current status of partisan politics clouds rather than clears issues,” Hazeltine said. “Sadly, school issues and school boards and school leaders have become targets for these partisan politics.”

Alicia Messing, a special education teacher with 30 years of experience, said students are taught to listen to differing opinions and work together to develop solutions, and school boards should do the same without partisan politics getting involved and asked committee members to vote no on the bill.

Michelle Dillard said she supports the bill saying, “School board members have been violating parents rights.”

“This year has also proven that our school boards and school board members are partisan,” Dillard said. “Parents have the right to know school board members’ affiliations before voting for them.”

Dillard said current law could amended to ask that candidates’ party affiliation be added alongside their names and there is no need for a primary.

“I don’t think that all parents are screaming for this legislation,” Sen Hatathalie said. “I do think there needs to be clarification and amendments to this bill.”

Sen. Marsh said she could get behind the protest portion of the bill, but the partisan part is a hard no. Then Sen. Marsh asked Sen. Ugenti-Rita to split the bill so she could get behind the peaceful protest part of the bill.

Sen. Tyler Pace said “What I think we’re trying to solve is that there are parents that feel that their school board doesn’t represent them.”

“If you don’t like a school board member, you don’t re-elect them,” Sen. Pace said.

Sen. Pace said he can’t support the partisan portion of the bill, but he could support the protest portion if it were put in a separate bill.

The bill failed with a vote of 4 ayes and 4 nays.

House Ed votes for school library bill

The House Education Committee gave a due pass recommendation to House Bill 2439, sponsored by Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, which would give parents access to the school library’s catalog of available books and materials and let parents to receive a list of books or materials their children borrow from the library.

HB 2439 would also require the school district’s governing board to approve all books in schools’ libraries and require a list of all books being considered for school libraries to be provided for public review for 60 days before they are purchased.

HB 2439 is similar to measures Republican Legislators have introduced in Oklahoma, Texas, South Carolina and 30 other states to ban books and materials educating children and teenagers about race, gender and sexuality.

The National Coalition Against Censorship has denounced this legislation that would ban books in a statement signed by the American Library Association, Arizona English Teachers Association, Safe Schools Action Network, American Civil Liberties Union, Children’s Literature Association, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, National Black Justice Coalition, National Council for the Social Studies and the National Youth Rights Association.

Arizona Capitol Television video: House Education Committee Meeting – 1/25/22

A parent who spoke in support of the bill said that there should be no sexual content in books and materials students are learning from in the classroom.

“Why again are we not wanting transparency with parents like a school library catalog online,” she said.

Rep. Judy Schwiebert said in these days parents can volunteer in the library and use their own or their students own login to check their schools online library catalog, although there may be some schools in rural areas which have not been able to do that.

“Libraries book budgets have been slashed to nothing since 2006 and this year they received $3,000,” Rep. Schwiebert said.

Rep. Schwiebert said school librarians have sent Legislators many messages asking them to vote against this bill.

Parents need to speak out to their school librarians and direct their child about what they read rather than place these “restrictions on our school libraries and trust the professionals to make these decisions,” Rep. Schwiebert said.

“Do we have any idea what the impact may be on the school districts? Especially smaller and rural school districts who don’t already have an online catalog and how they would pay for that?” Rep. Daniel Hernandez asked.

The bill received a do pass recommendation with a vote of 6 ayes and 4 nays and 1 absent.

Bill to ban sexually explicit learning materials passes

The House Education Committee also gave a due pass recommendation to House Bill 2495, sponsored by Rep. Jake Hoffman, which would prevent public schools from referring students to or using any sexually explicit material in any manner.

HB 2495 defines sexually explicit material as depicting sexual conduct, including homosexuality, sexual intercourse, masturbation and physical contact with genitals; sexual excitement; or sexual acts.

House Education Chair Michelle Udall proposed an amendment that would allow early American literature, classical literature, a required book for a course to obtain college credit and allow parents an opportunity to opt out and provide their students with an alternative assignment.

“It’s an important issue. There’s nothing more sacred than the innocence of a child,” said Rep. Hoffman said.

“In many cases, this very uncomfortable material to talk about here is being presented to children in fourth grade,” Rep. Hoffman said.

Rep. Hernandez asked if he saw such materials and experienced these materials being shared without the involvement of parents when he served on the Higley Unified School District school board.

Rep. Hoffman said not in his district but in district surrounding Higley Unified.

“The way this is drafted homosexuality as a whole is considered sexually explicit,” Sen. Hernandez said.

“For 28 years, we had a bill in 2019 that we repealed about HIV instruction,” Rep. Hernandez said. “I’m concerned that this bill may ban any conversation about homosexuality.”

Rep. Hoffman said,”It is about acts of homosexuality not being homosexual.”

“I do not think this language is clear,” Rep. Hernandez said. “I think that schools will stay away from this hot topic, because the language is not clear.”

Rep. Schweibert asked what is defined as a classic work of literature in the amendment.

House Chair Udall said there are broad definitions of that online, and teachers will still have to get parent consent before they can teach that.

When Rep. Schweibert asked if a student could check out “The Color Purple” book, Rep. Hoffman said if a parent opted in they could.

“Why is homosexuality put outside of context of sexual intercourse in this bill?” Rep. Hernandez asked.

Michelle Dillard said she supports the bill morally and ethically, but can’t find a reason for the bill to be passed as law since there is already a statute prohibiting the distribution of offensive, harmful materials to minor children.

Shiry Sapir, a candidate for Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, said she did not believe anyone wanted this material being made available to children.

Jeanne Casteen said she was opposed to the bill and said the bill could remove books like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “Night” by Elie Wiesel and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

‘What if I don’t like classical literature or it doesn’t speak to my students?” Casteen asked.

“Our children go through tough things, and books can help them get through those things,” Casteen said.

A professor who has done research on LGBTQ+ youth said, “seeing yourself reflected in the curriculum is associated with better academic outcomes for all students.”

He urged legislators to vote no on the bill.

Geoff Esposito spoke on behalf of the ACLU against the bill and said the “Legislature should not be in the position of censorship.”

“Taking such an action to eliminate students access to materials that represents them isolates and others them,” Esposito said.

Rebecca Beebe with the Arizona School Administrators said her organization is opposed to the bill.

“We certainly have concerns about the word homosexuality in this bill,” Beebe said. “It says sexual conduct is homosexuality, and we have concerns about how that affects discussion of historical figures.”

Darcy Mentone from Vail School District said many classics taught in high school and Advanced Placement courses have one scene of minor sexual content, so the district really appreciates the amendment, and letting parents opt out so their student could do an alternative assignment if they choose.

The bill received a do pass recommendation on a vote of 6 aye and 4 nay and 1 absent.

Bill passes to ban transgender students on school sports teams

On Thursday last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed along party lines Senate Bill 1165 – the Save Women’s Sports Act – sponsored by Sen. Nancy Barto, which would require participation in all public or private school athletic teams from elementary school to college level be based on the student’s sex at birth. Sen. Barto had introduced a similar bill two years ago that did not pass in the Arizona Senate.

Parents of transgender students asked Arizona Legislators to vote against the bill saying it would hurt children who want to play on school sports teams who already face challenges at school.

SB 1165 is similar to measures passed by Republican Legislators in Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi and introduced in 29 other states last session to prevent transgender students, who identify with a gender different than the sex on their birth certificate, from playing on sports teams that match their current gender identities. About 10 states have passed bills similar to SB 1165.

The bill is one of several other bills Republican Legislators have introduced this session that target LGBTQ+ students and issues. House Bill 2314, sponsored by Rep. John Kavanagh, would prevent transgender students from using the bathroom for their gender identity, and House Bill 2011, also sponsored by Rep. Kavanagh, would require a parent’s consent for a student to join clubs like a gay-straight alliance or based on sexual or gender identity. House Bill 2061, sponsored by Rep. Shawnna Bolick, would require a parent’s consent for a student go take sexual education.

Arizona Capitol Television video: Senate Judiciary Committee Meeting on SB 1165 – 1/20/22

SB 1165 would allow students or schools that suffer harm due to a violation to seek injunctive relief, damages and any other relief available under law.