School board members could face elections in 2016

JACKSON — Mississippi House members are trying again to pass legislation that would require school board members to be elected.

But they’re willing to let voters decide on electing or appointing local school superintendents.

The House Education Committee voted yesterday to require school board members to be elected starting in 2016. The panel also voted to require the roughly 60 districts with an elected superintendent to hold a referendum in November on switching to an appointed superintendent.

Now, either some or all city school board members are appointed, typically by the mayor. House members note boards can raise property taxes and say only elected officials should be able to do so.

All members of county boards are currently elected, as are some representatives of city boards who live in areas outside the city limits. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said about 70 percent of school board members are currently appointed.

Many mayors and some education groups oppose ending appointed boards in cities.

“These bills will discourage school board service by professional, high quality candidates who are willing to serve but not willing to raise funds and wage a political campaign,” the Parents Campaign, an education lobbying group, wrote to supporters yesterday. “The effect would likely be to diminish the quality of boards in municipal districts.”

Rep. Brad Mayo, R-Oxford, who was shepherding House Bill 442 through committee, amended it to require that three members of each board would be elected at the same time, while the president and two members would be elected two years later, when U.S. House members are elected.

Mayo said that would ensure some continuity on boards, addressing one criticism.

“You wouldn’t wipe out the whole board at one time,” Mayo said.

Reformers have long sought appointed superintendents throughout Mississippi, saying that school boards should be able to fire superintendents and saying that political conflict can develop in systems with elected boards and elected superintendents.

“In my mind, that is the No. 1 education issue, changing from elected to appointed superintendents,” Tollison said.

The House defeated a bill last year to appoint superintendents in some smaller districts. Instead, House members demanded that residents in all districts that now elect school chiefs hold a referendum on electing or appointing them, and that’s what House Bill 825 would grant. Senators didn’t want to allow a vote unless a certain number of residents signed a petition, what’s called a reverse referendum in Mississippi.

However, Rep. Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, voted against even a referendum.

“We’ve always had an elected school superintendent and it’s always worked well,” he said after the vote. “I think people in my district want to elect their superintendent.”

Members of the committee from DeSoto County, who have opposed changing from an elected superintendent in Mississippi’s largest district, were not present at yesterday’s meeting.

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