OUR OPINION: School governance changes beaten back

By NEMS Daily Journal

There’s something to be said for Gov. Phil Bryant’s attitude about a bill that created a task force to study making all school boards in Mississippi elected.
“Mississippi does not need more studies,” Bryant said. “It needs reform.”
The bill originally required elected school boards in all districts, but opposition produced the task force study proposal – a standard way to bury unwanted legislation.
Changing Mississippi school governance to elect all school boards and appoint all superintendents is a major component of the education proposals backed by Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn.
While the argument for appointed superintendents is strong, we’ve got some reservations about electing all school board members. But the tradeoff may ultimately be necessary.
Municipal school districts generally have school boards appointed by city officials and superintendents appointed by those school boards, while county districts have mostly elected school boards and elected superintendents.
While the most compelling argument against electing superintendents is that it restricts a school district’s choice for a leader only to residents of that county, the overt political activity required can also interfere with good school governance. That dynamic can come into play in school board elections as well.
But unlike elected superintendents, elected school boards are the norm nationally, and Mississippi would be in the mainstream if it made the change. If that happens, it doesn’t need to be in the way proposed this year, with entire boards elected every four years in conjunction with presidential elections.
That system has the potential to wipe out experience and institutional knowledge in one election and have a one-issue, special-interest wave of emotion carry an election. Yes, the same could be said for city council or board of supervisor elections, but those entities are inherently political, unlike the considerations that should guide schools. Far better are the staggered terms under which current elected school boards in Mississippi operate.
Still alive are proposals that would at least allow for districts to vote on changing from elected to appointed superintendents. The Senate’s version that would call an election only upon petition of a set percentage of the electorate is preferable to automatic votes.
Mississippi schools have some fine elected superintendents, but the system is flawed. Our state has nearly half the remaining elected superintendents in the entire country, which should tell us something. And we don’t need any studies to tell us that a school leader shouldn’t be guided by politics.