Clarion Ledger’s Geoff Pender wrote recently, “There appears to be a political harmonic convergence — all the stars are lining up to allow” the Mississippi Legislature to pass a bill aimed at making all school superintendents appointed rather than elected, a measure Pender says is “long-needed, long-thwarted reform.”
On this point we agree. As Pender notes, Mississippi is one of only three states that elect any school superintendents. The tail often wags the dog.
State Rep. Charles Busby (R-HD 111) is drafting a bill that would require all public school superintendents be appointed by the 2019-2020 school year. This timeframe would allow those recently elected superintendents to nearly complete their term while providing local school boards time to make the necessary changes to their policies and begin a search for a superintendent they would appoint.
Rep. Busby believes the public should still have a voice in their local education processes, particularly on local school boards. As such, Busby aims to include a measure in the bill which would allow those districts shifting from elected to appointed superintendents to hold a special local election to determine whether voters prefer an all elected school board, an all appointed school board, or a mixture of an elected and appointed school board. This election would preferably coincide with the 2016 national election in November.
After all, it is the school boards that set policy and oversee public monies.
It would behoove the Legislature to follow Busby’s model and expand the legislation or draft a separate measure which would allow school districts whose local governing body appoints school board members to hold a special referendum to determine if they, too, wish to continue to allow their school boards to be appointed, or if they would rather have them elected.
The referendum process on this should be streamlined, not requiring the usual amount of signatures to initiate the ballot measure. A petition of 50-100 registered voters would suffice. It would exhibit that the public had an interest in the effort yet not impede the referendum from reaching the ballot. A bill should allow a local vote to coincide with an already scheduled election, preferably a state or national election so as to both draw the highest turnout possible and to save tax dollars.
I’ve written of the need to allow voters to elect their school board members numerous times, having sat on a local city council responsible for appointing a majority of the school board. I’ve seen firsthand a superintendent openly campaign for school board members to be reappointed by city officials, going so far as to provide questions and materials to city council members during interviews so their choice of a candidate up for appointment gets a favorable wink and nod back on the school board. I’ve seen the rubber stamping at reappointment time of these same school board members, giving little credence to accountability and achievement, and I’ve seen the appointments turn into a racially charged debate.
I still contend that parents and voters deserve a say in their education system, especially given the huge role our school districts play in the life of our communities and the amount of public monies they are tasked with overseeing, and it shouldn’t be funneled through a city council or other local governing body. Our current system is akin to taxation with indirect representation, and it’s time the Legislature give voters the opportunity to determine whether they want a direct voice on our school boards across Mississippi.
The ballot box remains the only tangible means of effecting change in our American system of government. All appointed superintendents is a major step in the right direction, but it can be argued allowing the public to vote to elect their school board members instead of being politically appointed would be a huge leap forward in terms of accountability, transparency, and taxation with direct representation.