First bill passed in 2017 fixes a 2016 law

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The Legislature approved the first piece of legislation for the 2017 session on Tuesday: a bill that would require school boards to appoint local school superintendents in case of a vacancy.

The bill amends a 2016 law that required school superintendents to be appointed by school boards rather than elected. The bill was rushed through the 2017 session in order to clarify what districts should do when superintendents resign or die in office.

The intent of the 2016 law, legislative leaders said this week, was that appointments would occur in place of elections for all new vacancies.

But the law’s language stated that its provisions would not go into effect until 2019, when superintendent elections normally would be held.

“Time is of the essence … This will be sent to the governor quickly,” said Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The intent is that if a superintendent resigns or dies, they’d be appointed by the school board. This was a general law we passed, and we’re trying to amend it.”

The language of the initial law created confusion for at least two school districts in the state that developed vacancies since the law was passed last year. The Marshall County School District requested clarification from the Attorney General’s office about how they should move forward after their superintendent resigned in the summer of 2016.

The Attorney General’s office, reading the 2016 law that was not scheduled to go into effect until 2019, said that a special election should be held in lieu of a school board appointment. Residents of Marshall County voted for a new superintendent on the general election ballot in November and in a runoff election three weeks later, Marshall County Circuit Clerk Lucy Carpenter said.

Since other elections were held on both the general election day and runoff election day, Carpenter said, Marshall County did not incur any extra expenses for the superintendent special election.

“But I’d say that if the superintendent election was the only one on the ballot, it would have cost us between $25,000 and $50,000,” Carpenter said.

The bill was passed overwhelmingly in the House on Jan. 4, with just four representatives voting against it. Two senators voted against it Tuesday.

The law will take effect immediately once Gov. Phil Bryant’s signs it.