Lawmakers debate bills to fire state employees, shorten school year

JACKSON — The Mississippi Legislature is considering two education-related bills — one passed out of committee while the other was set aside.

The Mississippi Department of Education would have the power to fire state employees at will for two years under a bill being considered in the House. State officials say they need the power to restructure the department to spend more time helping local school systems.

The House Education Committee approved House Bill 454 yesterday on a split voice vote, sending it to the Appropriations Committee for more debate. The bill, sponsored by House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, wouldn’t allow firing of local school employees.

Department leaders want temporary freedom from civil service protections to respond to a report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, calling on the department to do more to improve student performance.

“PEER determined that only one percent of positions at MDE is specifically tasked with improving classroom instruction in all of the state’s school districts,” the committee wrote. “Because MDE has allocated the majority of its resources to other areas, MDE has limited its own impact in the priority area of improved instruction, particularly the deep level of implementation necessary for increased student learning to occur.”

That report said the department relies too much on contractors to help school districts get better and that its own employees perform tasks not related to the department’s strategic priorities. Traditionally, many offices at MDE mainly watch over local districts to make sure they’re not violating state and federal rules.

“We’re making sure we have sufficient staff to meet the districts’ need in terms of professional development, in terms of technical assistance,” Superintendent Carey Wright said. “The organization needs to make sure it’s as effective and efficient as possible.”

The department has 500 authorized employees, although some work outside of administration as attendance officers or in schools such as the Mississippi School for Math and Science. Spokesman Pete Smith said the department has about 375 employees at its central office in Jackson. About 40 of those are not currently covered by civil service protections.

If agency heads want to fire a state employee now, they must go through a process that gives the worker a chance to appeal. Agencies can also lay off groups of employees for monetary reasons, but must respect seniority and job classifications.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to get rid of anybody,” said Wright, who became superintendent late last year. “I don’t know yet.”

The state Corrections Department and Agriculture Department have previously been granted temporary freedom from civil service rules.

In another education-related item, House Education Committee members are lukewarm about a proposal to shorten Mississippi’s public school year from 180 to 175 days.

The committee considered House Bill 75 yesterday, but set it aside without acting. The bill, sponsored by Committee Chairman John Moore, could come back up later.

Moore, a Brandon Republican, says he wants to make sure schools don’t have to drop holidays or hold class into June because of the school start date law lawmakers passed in 2012. It mandates that starting this fall, schools can’t start before the third Monday in August.

Moore says he believes many class days are wasted and could be dropped without hurting learning.

State Superintendent Carey Wright opposes the bill, saying research shows more instructional time yields benefits. Some committee members also oppose it.

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