Deal with elected superintendent issue

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, January 19, 2016

By Sid Salter

One of the real truisms in Mississippi politics is that we really like elections and voting.

The old saying about Mississippians — by and large — preferring to elect all their officials is pretty much true.

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We don’t elect dog-catchers in Mississippi, but given the chance I suspect most of us would be up for that too.

I’ve noted before in columns a favorite example. Since the state’s first constitution was drafted in 1817, Mississippians have been arguing over whether to appoint or elect judges.

In 1832, a constitutional convention fight erupted between three groups — the “aristocrats” who favored the appointment of all judges, the “half hogs” who wanted to elect some judges and have others appointed, and the “whole hogs” who wanted all judges elected.

History shows that the “whole hogs” won in 1832 and Mississippi has been electing judges ever since. Of the state’s current 545 judges from the Supreme Court to the Municipal Courts, only municipal judges are appointed.

But on the topic of electing or appointing Mississippi school superintendents, there are no “half-hogs” — constituents either passionately want to continue electing their superintendents or they just as passionately believe that electing superintendents is a political relic that shortchanges Mississippi’s schoolchildren.

Electing school superintendents makes the leadership of school districts a popularity contest. The skill set necessary to run an effective school is pretty specific and the consequences of electing a really nice man or woman to that post who doesn’t possess those specific skills can be catastrophic.

It’s an issue on which Mississippi is out-of-step with the rest of the country. In some 99 percent of the school districts in the U.S., school superintendents are appointed. There are about 150 elected superintendents nationwide and about half of them are from Mississippi.

The issue is clouded somewhat in Mississippi by the patchwork quilt of school district governance in Mississippi. County school districts primarily have elected school boards and elected superintendents. Municipal separate school districts in the state primarily feature appointed school boards who appoint superintendents.

Why does it matter? Accountability. Board-appointed superintendents can provide greater accountability, as they answer to the elected board. If the superintendent is not meeting the standards established by the local board of education and the state, the board has the authority to take immediate action and seek a replacement for the betterment of the school system.

With elected superintendents, school boards don’t have that authority except in the most extreme circumstances. The elected superintendent is entitled to a four-year term even if his or her performance is unsatisfactory — at least that’s true without extreme intervention from the state Board of Education.

Appointing school superintendents is unlikely to absolutely remove politics from public education, but it would go a long way in that many qualified educators who have the abilities and the qualifications to lead Mississippi public school simply don’t have the stomach for the political hand-to-hand combat necessary to get elected.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn have all expressed support for making the change from elected superintendents to appointed ones a reality in the 2016 legislative session. That bodes well for actually clearing that hurdle.

But the state’s elected superintendents and those political friends who support them are a powerful lobby. Those elected officials have the ability to put legislators in a tough spot by accusing them of taking away their vote in choosing the leadership of their local schools.

There’s also a racial component in the mix. Many African-Americans see changing from elected to appointed superintendents as a threat to gains made by fellow black school officials. That factor also influences the legislative process and has been a key pressure point for elected superintendents fighting to protect the status quo.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at