By Chris Kieffer
In November 2011, Jimmy Weeks defeated incumbent Mike Scott in a hotly contested election to become the Lee County School District’s superintendent of education.
Weeks, then the district’s assistant superintendent, won 54.7 percent of the vote in a race that pitted two candidates who worked in offices across the hall from one another.
“It was tough on me, and I’m sure it was tough on him, too,” Weeks said. “I felt bad for the people in the office and the district that felt that stress.”
Such elections could become a thing of the past, according to school governance changes being considered by the Mississippi Legislature.
One would turn all the state’s superintendents positions into appointed ones, chosen by school board members rather than by voters. Another would make all school board positions elected ones.
That change would have a big impact in many of the state’s cities, such as Tupelo, where the mayor selects school board members who must then be approved by the City Council.
In general, county districts elect both superintendents and school boards, while municipal districts appoint each. There are exceptions.
Mississippi is unique in the number of school superintendents it elects. It has about 60 of the nation’s roughly 145 elected school chiefs.
Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, wants to change that, calling the switch to appointed superintendents among the most important education issues facing the Legislature.
For one, he said, an elected superintendent is not accountable until he or she faces re-election four years later. If the superintendent is ineffective, the board is powerless to remove that person.
Also, only residents of the district are eligible to run, meaning the school district cannot choose a proven administrator from elsewhere to lead it. In small districts, it can be particularly difficult to find great candidates, he said.
Three measures still alive in the Legislature will consider the selection process for superintendents and school board members.
Tollison authored Senate Bill 2166, which would make all superintendents appointed positions in January 2016, unless local voters hold a referendum to keep it as an elected position.
House Bill 825 would require all districts with elected superintendents to hold a referendum on the issue this November.
Meanwhile, House Bill 442 would elect all school board members. Districts would be divided into five territories, and an election would be held in November 2016 for each of the five. Afterward, terms would be staggered so that every two years, either two or three board members would face re-election for four-year terms.
Elected school boards
The argument in favor of electing all school board members is that it would give residents a voice in school governance.
But there is opposition to the change, particularly in municipalities with a tradition of appointed boards.
“The appointed board member process has worked extremely well in Corinth in that you’ve always had individuals serve on the board who were interested in good schools as a whole and did not have a particular agenda,” said Corinth School District Superintendent Lee Childress, noting that successful districts should not be forced to change their structure.
Proponents of appointed boards say they attract residents happy to serve but uninterested in running a political campaign. They note that voters would still choose the mayor and city council members, who then select the board members.
Each of Tupelo’s five school board members said they would not have sought election if they had not initially been appointed.
“I have a full-time commitment to my business,” said Tupelo School Board President Rob Hudson, who owns and operates several McDonald’s restaurants in the region. “The thought of having to campaign is not something I would ever desire. Politics is not for me.”
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said an advantage of an appointed board is that members are concerned about the district as a whole, rather than a constituency that pressures them to favor a particular school.
The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, has long advocated for the switch to appointed superintendents. Among its biggest arguments is that it increases the candidate pool, especially in smaller districts.
The head of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, however, does not favor a change.
“I feel like communities need to decide,” Sam Bounds said. “We are not for the Legislature mandating.”
Sherry Mask, the Lee County School Board president, said she supported appointed superintendents because it allows districts to recruit more candidates and because it makes superintendents more accountable to the board.
Weeks and Pontotoc County Superintendent Kenneth Roye said there is an advantage of being elected because it forces them to go out and meet voters and hear their concerns.
However, both said they already work to be accountable to their boards and would be OK with a switch to an appointed position.
Not having to face election also would create more time to focus on school business, they said.