School chief elections targeted

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

14,500 School districts in U.S.
147 Elected superintendents nationally
64 Elected superintendents in Mississippi


Mississippi school superintendents may no longer be elected if legislative leaders are able to change the law.
The idea appears to have support from the chairmen of both the House and Senate Education Committees, who each mentioned it as being among their priorities prior to the start of the current legislative session.
Currently, school chiefs in Mississippi’s city districts are chosen by school board members, while those in most county districts are elected. Some counties, such as Tishomingo and Lafayette, have opted for an appointed superintendent.
If passed, a new law would require all counties to do so.
Mississippi has nearly half the nation’s elected superintendents. Of the approximately 14,500 school districts in the country, only 147 have elected superintendents. Sixty-four of those are in the Magnolia State.
Organizations such as the Mississippi Economic Council have for years called for phasing out elected superintendents, but the issue has never gained much legislative traction until now.
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said the issue is that elected superintendents must be residents of that county. That can prevent districts from bringing in someone who has had success in another district.
Also, school boards have little ability to remove a poorly performing elected superintendent.
“In a larger district it doesn’t matter, but in a smaller one, you have a limited supply of quality candidates,” Tollison said. “Also, in terms of governance, an elected superintendent doesn’t have to answer to a school board. It ties the hands of a school board.”
House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said he prevented the House committee from voting on an appointed superintendent bill last session because he wanted to study it more. He said he now supports the concept.
“The evidence is not clear that appointed superintendents do better than elected ones, but at the end of the day, you have two elected bodies,” Moore said. “There is an elected school board and an elected superintendent, and in most situations, they are competitive politically.
“Our elected superintendents have become aggressive politically outside of education, which is detrimental. They have used the political machine to help elect or defeat candidates they like or don’t like. Superintendents need to be focused on education.”
Moore had said prior to the session he intended to bring the issue before the committee and let it make a decision. No committee members have told him they are opposed to it, he said.
The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, is passionate about the issue, President Blake Wilson said.
“There are many existing elected superintendents who would be appointed,” Wilson said. “But why hamstring the hands of a board from going out and seeking a superintendent by saying, first, you must live in an area, then you must qualify for an election and third, you must be willing to run for office.
“Why not allow our schools to recruit the best and brightest and be able to find the most qualified candidate.”
A new law would likely allow school boards in elected districts to appoint their sitting superintendent to remain in that seat.
“Most superintendents would be retained,” Wilson said. “There are many exceptional elected superintendents in this state.”
law support
The Mississippi Board of Education also supports legislation that would phase in a transition from elected to appointed superintendents statewide.
The head of Mississippi’s Association of School Superintendents does not, however.
Sam Bounds, the organization’s executive director, notes that state law already allows counties to opt individually to change their superintendent position to an appointed one, as Lafayette and Tishomingo counties chose to do. It also allows city districts to opt for an elected school chief, he said.
“Because there is a law now on the books that will allow local districts to choose, our position is to follow the existing law,” Bounds said. “There are some outstanding districts that have elected superintendents, such as DeSoto, Lee, Madison and Rankin. When you compare their student scores to other districts, they rank at or above in most instances.”
Jimmy Weeks, the elected superintendent in the Lee County School District, said politics can be a distraction around a political election. However, he said, appointed superintendents also have political issues that they must manage.
“I feel like, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you are an elected superintendent, one year out of your four-year term, the primary focus is re-election,” Weeks said. “I don’t believe it is a character flaw or a fault, I just believe it is a fact.”
Weeks said he can see some benefit of a district bringing in an outside educator to lead it, but that there is also value in having a superintendent who is from the community and understands its needs.
He also noted there is a value of having to seek office.
“It would be nice if you didn’t have to run, but part of the whole political process and meeting people and talking to people throughout the district is how you stay in touch with people and what their needs and desires are,” he said.
electing a board
If superintendent positions do become appointed, Weeks said, he feels that school board seats should be elected so that residents still have a voice in their school leadership.
Lee County’s school board members are currently elected.
“I feel like people should have some voice in who is the leader of their district,” Weeks said.
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden disagreed. In his district, school board members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. The argument is that it allows qualified candidates who would not want to seek political election to sit on a school board.
“The reality is that many of our higher performing districts are governed by appointed boards,” Loden said. “There is questionable language embedded into these bills including the election of local school boards. It’s an issue that should be decided at the local level. If it is not, then local control will be further eroded as our state government in Jackson continues to grow and assume more control.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com