JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers are making a fresh push to have 55 elected local school superintendents appointed by school boards instead, with the Senate Education Committee approving such a bill Wednesday.
Only Democrat J.P. Wilemon, of Belmont, and Angela Hill, R-Picayune, opposed Senate Bill 2438 on a voice vote. It now moves to the full Senate for more work, and could be considered as early as Thursday.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, likened hiring a superintendent to hiring a football coach. He noted school districts can go anywhere to hire a winning coach, but voters have to select a superintendent from among district residents who hold a school administrator's license from the state. In some rural counties, the pool of eligible candidates can be very small.
"I can't tell you that changing these school districts from elected to appointed will change their academic performance," Tollison said. "But I think it will give them a chance."
In some cases, elected school boards and superintendents have gotten into conflicts that have contributed to the state Department of Education taking over a district. In those situations, boards could just fire an appointed superintendent.
Such a bill has been debated repeatedly in the past, but has failed. Republican leaders say they hope an increased Republican majority in the House will improve chances of passage in 2016. Gov. Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Board of Education and the Mississippi School Boards Association are among those who support the change.
Now, superintendents from city districts are appointed, but most county district superintendents are elected every four years. That includes four of Mississippi's five largest school districts — DeSoto County, Rankin County, Madison County and Harrison County.
The measure would require that superintendents be appointed in all 144 Mississippi school districts beginning Jan. 1, 2019. However, superintendents elected before then would be allowed to serve out their term until Jan. 1, 2020, Tollison said. Boards could choose to appoint a previously elected superintendent to continue.
Wilemon said he opposed the bill in part because he feared taxpayers would pay higher salaries for appointed superintendents than elected ones.
"I haven't heard any complaints with the elected superintendents, other than at the Legislature," Wilemon said.
Hill said she'd prefer instead to see a system where residents from anywhere in the state could run for an elected superintendent. Earlier proposals have included provisions that would have allowed voters in individual counties to opt out, but the current proposal does not.
"We're going to put on our big boy pants and go straight appointed," Tollison said.
Some lawmakers also favor proposals to make all school board members in all districts elected, in part to increase public accountability for tax increases. Now, many city districts appoint some or all members. Tollison's bill doesn't alter that.