OUR OPINION: School governance structures matter

Key legislative leaders have identified changes in school governance in Mississippi as high priorities in the 2014 session, as a story in Sunday’s Daily Journal noted.

One of those, moving from elected to appointed superintendents, has been an issue for decades. For political reasons, it never has advanced, and Mississippi remains one of the few states in the nation to hold on to the practice of electing many of its school administrative leaders.

There are only 145 elected school superintendents in the entire nation. Sixty of them are in Mississippi.

One of the shortcomings of the system is that it can tempt even the best elected school superintendents to be overly sensitive to political concerns.

In addition, it dramatically limits the field for superintendents. Only local people need apply. Parochial thinking says that’s fine, but parochial thinking simply won’t do as Mississippi struggles to get its education system to a nationally and globally competitive level.

There are many fine elected superintendents in Mississippi, but every school district in the state should be able to cast a wide net to find the best possible educational leader for its circumstances and needs. The highest qualification shouldn’t be the ability to win an election. The choice may ultimately be someone in the district or nearby, but there should be no restriction requiring it.

Legislation advancing in the House this session calls for referendums this November in districts with elected superintendents on whether to continue electing them. If voters decide they want superintendents appointed by school boards, those boards would be free to appoint the incumbent elected superintendent if they chose. In the Senate, a bill would make the change from elected to appointed automatic unless voters petitioned for an election. This process would at least free those county districts that wanted a new, less politicized system to move ahead.

Legislators also are considering making appointed school boards, which are primarily in municipal districts, elected. This would be a mistake.

Appointed school board members are subject to the electoral accountability of the mayor who nominates them and the city board that approves them. Appointed school boards don’t take all the politics out of school board selections or proceedings, of course, but they lessen it and allow board members to focus on what’s best for all children as opposed to special interest issues that will get them elected or re-elected.

Appropriate school governance is critical for the improvement and future success of Mississippi schools. Reducing direct political considerations as much as possible in the administration of schools and allowing greater latitude in seeking leaders should be the legislative goal.