Supporters of a new law requiring local school superintendents to all be appointed starting in 2019 say the appointments will broaden the pool of qualified applicants and make the position more accountable.
A law signed April 11 by Gov. Phil Bryant requires all local school superintendents to be appointed by their local school boards after Jan. 1, 2019.
“This simple act of innovation is long overdue,” Bryant tweeted.
Out of 144 public school districts in Mississippi, 55 districts, or 38 percent, have superintendents who are elected.
Most districts — 89 of them — have superintendents who are appointed or will appoint superintendents before the new deadline.
The bill’s principal author and chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said 99 percent-plus of superintendents across the country are appointed.
“It made sense that we need to adopt this,” Tollison said. “It protects the time of superintendents so they don’t have the pressure of campaigning every fourth year. It’s a hard job. You’re fundraising and out there getting votes and you’re not at school tending to matters.”
Tollison also said elected superintendents may be less inclined to make bold decisions about improving education, for they would likely be “more beholden to the voters.”
He said it would also give smaller counties with lower populations an opportunity to look outside their county to select a superintendent.
Paul Chamblee, manager of governmental relations for the Mississippi School Boards Association, said the association supports all superintendents being appointed.
“We felt like it broadens the pool of people who could qualify for the job,” Chamblee said. “Right now, in order to be a superintendent, you have to have the degree, meet the qualifications and live in the district. Then you’ve got to decide to run … With an appointed (system), it opens it up to the whole United States … It makes the pool of applicants bigger.”
Chamblee also said appointing superintendents makes the position more accountable.
“Once you’re elected, you serve for four years,” Chamblee said. “If you’re doing a great job, that’s fine, but if there’s some issues, there’s nothing you can do to remove” that superintendent.
Chamblee said that with appointed superintendents, the local school district can set goals for them.
“If they don’t meet those goals, then that person can be removed and you can find another superintendent,” he said
Mississippi Association of Educators Executive Director Frank Yates said he considers the appointment of superintendents to be a positive thing, especially for smaller counties with smaller populations who will be able to hire from a bigger pool of applicants.
Yates also said there is nothing to show low school ratings are related to appointed or elected superintendents.
Lawmakers had considered imposing a three-year halt on salary increases for superintendents starting this summer, and prescribing a method for determining raises. That legislation has been amended to require a state Department of Education annual report on making superintendents’ salaries performance-based. Some local boards oppose having the state set such standards.
Regarding the salary freeze, Yates said he felt superintendents’ salaries would be better handled by the local school districts. He also said a moratorium could prevent some applicants from applying for superintendent positions in the state.
“It could deter applicants … not just in Mississippi, but across the country,” Yates said.
Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said he has no problem with appointing superintendents, but voted against freezing superintendent salary increases when the bill was passed by the House in late February.
“I agree that the legislature has something to do with pay of public employees,” Baria said. “ … There was no satisfactory explanation provided to justify imposing the three-year moratorium on superintendent salaries.”
Alcorn County School District Superintendent Larry Mitchell, who is elected, said he sees the advantage in appointing superintendents rather than electing them because campaigning for the position can take time away from attending to school business.
He also doesn’t think the state should be setting superintendents’ salaries.
“I think that ought to be up to the local board” Mitchell said.
Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.