Senate panel blocks Bomgar from education board

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — The Senate Education Committee blocked Joel Bomgar’s nomination to join the state Board of Education Thursday on an 8-7 vote.

Bomgar, the 33-year-old founder of Bomgar Corp. of Ridgeland, saw his nomination set aside after opponents sharply questioned his board membership on the conservative-leaning Mississippi Center for Public Policy, his choice to home-school his children and his policy preferences for education.

“You want to be on the public statewide school board,” Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, a former public school principal, said of home-schooling. “I have a problem with that.”

Bomgar said after the meeting that the Education Committee rejected him because some aren’t open to differing viewpoints.

“I believe in diversity on boards,” he said.

A Jackson resident, Bomgar was nominated by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, for the nine-year term. Gunn said Bomgar’s background shows that he understands and appreciates learning.

“I have always believed that the people we put in charge of our education system must be people who understand the value of an education,” Gunn said.

He said he was unsure if he would try to reappoint Bomgar or if he would name someone else.

During the meeting, Bomgar said that as CEO of the state’s largest software company, he had a vital interest in a well-educated populace.

“Public education, to me, is the No. 1 biggest level of what can vault Mississippi ahead in the economy,” he said.

Under questioning from Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, Bomgar said he hadn’t formed opinions on vouchers for students to attend private schools, publicly funded prekindergarten, or allowing private companies to run public schools.

“I would be open to considering anything that has worked in other states,” Bomgar said. “I don’t think we should artificially dismiss any options.”

Bomgar said he wasn’t familiar with the state’s funding formula for education.

“I think we should fund our education system for excellence,” he said.

Even Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who voted to keep Bomgar’s nomination alive, said he was concerned because the Center for Public Policy had advocated against state funding of preschool programs. Wiggins sponsored the successful Senate bill to create such a program. Wiggins asked if Bomgar would quit the center’s board, and Bomgar said he didn’t want to.

Forest Thigpen, president of the center, said Bomgar would have brought independent thought to the board.

“The state Board of Education is intended to be an objective overseer of the Department of Education,” Thigpen said. “They need to have diverse experiences on the board.”

After the meeting, Wiggins said the center has overstepped its mission statement and criticized a center employee who has made “derogatory social media posts” about some senators. Thigpen said the problem had been corrected but declined to discuss if the employee had been disciplined or fired.

Bomgar’s supporters said opponents were unfairly dismissing him and taking a constricted view of what qualifies a person to serve on the state Board of Education.

“We don’t usually try to lynch folks,” said Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, drawing protests from opponents. She said that even people who educate children at home or send them to private schools have the right to serve because they are taxpayers.

“We’re going to disregard him just because he has chosen to home-school a child who’s not even school-aged yet and was home-schooled himself,” Collins said. “We have forgotten liberty.”

Besides being a board member of the Center for Public Policy, Bomgar also heads Better Education for Mississippi, a group of Republican-linked business leaders that has pushed for a widened charter school law. He’s also been active in the Mississippi Economic Council and is a trustee at Belhaven University, from which he graduated in 2003.

He was accompanied to the hearing by his three young children and his wife. At one point, one of his sons climbed in his lap and asked why the meeting was taking so long.

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