Proposals would bring consistency to school district governance

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Legislation pending in the Mississippi Legislature would make all school superintendents appointed and school boards elected.
For years – decades even – various business groups, such as the Mississippi Economic Council, have advocated to appoint all local school superintendents.
It appears this year the moons are in alignment to make that happen. Gov. Phil Bryant and key members of the Republican leadership of the House and Senate have endorsed the proposal.
But the vote may still be close and – much like charter schools earlier this session – will not necessarily break down along party lines. Despite the support of the leadership, there are Republicans who oppose making all superintendents appointed.
“I am for letting the people vote,” said Rep. Chris Brown, R-Aberdeen, who represents a substantial portion of Monroe County. “We have an elected one, and he is doing a fine job. I trust the people to make that decision.”
In general, rural legislators, regardless of party, are more likely to support elected superintendents since they already have one.
The argument for making all superintendents appointed is to remove the politics from the office of the person who manages the schools and to provide districts – especially smaller rural districts – a larger talent pool from which to select a superintendent.
“In a district where there are appointed superintendents, your talent pool is every licensed administrator in the United States,” said Rep. Brad Mayo, R-Oxford, who is a primary supporter of the legislation making superintendents appointed.
Mississippi’s school districts are a hodgepodge. Of the 146 elected superintendents nationwide, 64 are in Mississippi – primarily in county districts. The other 87 districts have appointed superintendents.
Generally speaking, municipal school districts have school board members appointed by the mayor and governing board and superintendents selected by that appointed school board. Some districts have a combination of appointed and elected school board members – especially when the municipal district has territory outside the town’s boundaries. In a few cases, there are areas in school districts outside the municipal boundaries that do not have any representation on the board.
In most cases, county school districts have elected school board members and elected superintendents. Supporters of appointed superintendents say with both being elected, there is often a tension and conflict in operating the district.
House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said by having all school boards elected, people will have a voice in the operation of the school system. The elected board, Moore said, can appoint a qualified, professional superintendent.
“If we are going to appoint superintendents, we need to give local taxpayers a voice by having an elected board,” Moore said. Under the House’s proposal, the school board members would no longer serve staggered terms. Instead, all would be elected in presidential election years – starting in 2016. All superintendents would be appointed after the November 2015 statewide elections.
Moore predicted “95 percent” of the current elected superintendents would be appointed by their school boards.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, former chairman of the House Education Committee, said when he studied the issue he found more poor-performing school districts had appointed superintendents. But he said he does not believe that necessarily means elected superintendents are better.
“The key is to get qualified people for the board and as superintendent,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how you do it. They key is to get the community involved in getting good qualified people.”
The Legislature allowed residents of school districts with elected superintendents to vote in 1988 on whether they would rather keep their current system or convert to an appointed superintendent. In every case voters opted to stay with an elected superintendent.
In some cases the vote was close. In Lee County, for instance, 4,720 voted for the elected superintendent while 3,038 wanted an appointed superintendent.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com