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Lawmakers debating salary of state's education leader

JACKSON — With public school teachers and college professors losing their jobs, some Mississippi lawmakers say it’s time to look at how much the state’s top education leaders are paid.

The Senate last Friday voted to send to the House a bill that would change the way the salary is set for the state superintendent of education, who oversees K-12 schools. The bill had passed the Senate earlier, but was held for more debate.

Currently, the superintendent’s pay is set at 90 percent of the salary paid to the commissioner of higher education, which is determined by the state College Board. Under the bill, the state Board of Education would set the superintendent’s pay.

Education Superintendent Tom Burnham earns $307,000 and Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds is paid $341,250, according to Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford.

When compared to other states, Mississippi’s higher ed commissioner had the ninth-highest salary, Tollison said Friday, citing information from the 2010 edition of the “Book of the States” published by the Council of State Governments.

Tollison said the state superintendent’s salary is the second-highest in nation.

“I’m looking at us and we need to be better watchdogs over this. The buck stops with the Legislature,” Tollison said. “We certainly need to examine this, especially in our tight budget situation. We need to look at all the salaries outside the state Personnel Board.”

The bill only deals with the education superintendent, and the deadline has passed for legislators to introduce new general bills to address other salaries. And, Tollison decided not to offer an amendment that would have broadened the scope of the bill after some senators said they had received calls from several education advocates who discouraged tampering with the salaries.

Bettye Neely, president of the state College Board, said offering a competitive salary for the higher education commissioner is “imperative” to attracting and retaining high-caliber leaders.

Charles McClelland, chairman of the state Board of Education, couldn’t be reached late Friday for comment.

State Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said he was “shocked” the salaries were so high.

“We’re having a lot of teachers go down. We’re having tenured professors laid off,” Bryan said.

During budget hearings last fall, the state Department of Education informed lawmakers that Mississippi schools cut 2 percent of the jobs for certified teachers this academic year because of tight budgets. That amounted to a loss of about 705 jobs.

The University of Southern Mississippi cut 29 professors for the 2011-12 academic year, including 14 tenured professors, because of budget cuts. The university recently restored 15 faculty positions.

Other universities weathered the budget crunch by leaving positions vacant or offering early retirement packages to faculty and staff.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, said he supported the bill. Carmichael added that he thought Burnham was doing a good job in the position.

House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said he’s introduced similar measures in the past. He said the two salaries shouldn’t be connected, but he doesn’t want to change the salaries of the officials currently in place.

“We’re going to take a hard look at it. I support the concept,” Brown said.


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