During his tenure as Equality Utah’s Manager of Public Policy, Will Carlson talked to several public officials about the need for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns to have equal legal protections. In 2009, his work took him before the Salt Lake City School Board.
“We were lobbying the superintendent to implement nondiscrimination policies and extend healthcare to families of LGBT employees,” he said. “I got a very cold reception at that meeting. At that point the suggestion was made that there would need to be changes in the school board before anything like that happened.”
When Carlson left the statewide gay and transgender rights group in 2009 to work as an attorney for Sim Gill, Salt Lake City’s Chief City Prosecutor, he said he decided to “be the change.” Late last month, he formally announced his bid to run against Precinct 3’s incumbent Douglas Nelson.
Although Carlson has never held an elected office, he said that his work lobbying with school board members and districts has more than prepared him for the job.
“I think I’m going to bring a progressive voice as well as a unique perspective [to the school board] both as an attorney and as a gay man,” he said.
If Carlson’s bid is successful, he said that extending healthcare benefits to the same-sex partners of district employees will not be his only goal. He is also concerned with Utah’s dropping high school graduation rate and its rate of spending per pupil — which has been the lowest in the country for years.
“It’s almost become this foregone conclusion,” said Carlson. “Utah’s really good at making kids, we need to focus on taking care of kids.”
Carlson blamed the dropout rate — one in eight students in the state and one in three in his district — on a number of factors, including anti-gay and anti-transgender harassment. In an April interview with Examiner, Carlson said that the district’s anti-bullying policies were weak, lacking victim resources and not giving clear outlines for discipline other than short term suspensions.
“One of the results [of this omission[ is that student safety depends on the involvement of each individual teacher or administrator,” he said at the time. “Some children may be bullied in one classroom with the same behavior that would be prohibited in the classroom next door.”
“LGBT kids don’t feel safe in schools because of bullying and hazing issues,” he said. “Our schools [also] need better funding to deal with homeless youth.”
“Across the state when kids get kicked out for being LGBT they become Salt Lake School District students when they come to the city,” Carlson continued, noting that roughly 42 percent of Utah’s homeless youth population identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or non-straight. “The Salt Lake School District has the most homeless youth and therefore the most LGBT homeless youth. By underfunding our homeless students we’re underfunding our LGBT students as well.”
Additionally, the district’s school board has had a spotty history when it comes to issues relating to gay and transgender students. In 1996, it voted to ban all non-curricular clubs to stop the formation of the state’s first gay-straight alliance at East High School. The decision, and the student walk out it inspired, garnered national media coverage and gave the fledgling GSA movement a shot in the arm. Since then, the board has rescinded the decision and a number of GSAs are active at high schools across the state.
Because school board races are nonpartisan, Carlson said that he cannot “ride the Democratic bandwagon” as other candidates do. Instead, he said he would concentrate on recruiting volunteers and canvassing neighborhoods in the precinct to talk to residents about his ideas.
“I think a big part of it is going to be name recognition towards the summer’s end,” he said.
For more information about Carlson’s candidacy, search for “Will Carlson for Salt Lake City School Board” on Facebook.