Senate passes bill allowing for appointed school superintendents

JACKSON — Mississippi’s local school superintendents would have to be appointed by 2016, unless voters opt to keep electing their local chief, under a bill the Senate passed yesterday.

Another bill would require the state Department of Education to rate schools and school districts on an “A” to “F” scale, instead of the current seven-step range from “star” to “failing.”

Right now, of Mississippi’s 152 school districts, 64 county districts have elected superintendents who run on partisan ballots for four-year terms, according to the Mississippi Economic Council. Superintendents in all city districts are already appointed. Senate Bill 2313 would require that elections cease after the current term ending in 2016, unless 20 percent of registered voters in a county school district petition to keep an elected superintendent and voters agree in a referendum.

Those pushing elected superintendents say the requirement means there are few choices for district leaders, especially in rural districts. An elected superintendent has to have an administrator’s license and four years of experience.

Senate Education chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, also said some people who would make good superintendents don’t want to run for office, and in some cases, elected superintendents and school boards who don’t get along can end up in a standoff that hurts the district.

Tollison’s bill originally sought to end elections in all districts, but he agreed to an amendment to let voters petition by Jan. 1, 2015 to keep elections. He said he wasn’t sure how many districts might ultimately keep elected superintendents.

“As a matter of state policy, we think the appointed system is a better system of governance for our school districts,” Tollison said.

Another bill the Senate passed Tuesday would change the way the state rates schools and school districts. Currently, the state uses a seven-step system. From highest to lowest, the steps are: star, high performing, successful, academic watch, at risk of failing and failing. The Senate would compress that seven step system to six letter grades: A, B, C, D, D- and F.

Right now, the ratings are assigned using a numerical index based on test scores and graduation rates. Tollison said the Mississippi Department of Education could use the same numbers to assign the new ratings. He said the new system would be easier for parents to understand.

A third bill would make it easier for school boards to not renew appointed superintendents who come to the end of their contracts. The measure would say superintendents would not get legal hearings when boards refused to renew their contracts. Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said the bill is meant to prevent districts from facing expensive hearings. The Jackson city district had to spend $114,000 on a hearing last year when the board decided to not renew to contract of then-Superintendent Lonnie Edwards. Districts would still have to have good cause to fire superintendents during the middle of their contracts.

The bills move to the House for more work.

Senate Bill 2313 would require appointed superintendents. Senate Bill 2776 would change the state’s school rating system. Senate Bill 2176 would ease superintendent terminations.

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