Tate Reeves prepares to vote during Election Day at Liberty Baptist Church in Flowood, Miss., Tuesday Nov. 5, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Two key state education boards may not have enough members to carry out their duties, and Gov. Tate Reeves, who is responsible for filling most of the vacancies, still hasn’t said when he might make the necessary appointments.

The Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning starting Friday will have just eight members — exactly enough for a quorum. The Board of Education currently has five members — exactly enough for a quorum. This means that the state’s top education boards cannot legally meet if one member is absent or has to recuse themselves, which is a regular occurrence on both boards.

Reeves has made no public comments on when he will name appointments for the vacancies. Because he did not make the appointments before the end of the 2021 legislative session, there are questions of whether he can make the appointments without calling a special session of the Mississippi Senate.

READ MORE: Top education boards may lack quorums after inaction from Gov. Tate Reeves

The Constitution mandates that the Senate confirm the appointments to both boards. And legal opinions and documents from legislative committees seem to suggest that Reeves will have to call a special session to confirm his appointments or wait for the Senate to reconvene for the 2022 regular session, which starts in January.

The terms of four members of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, which oversees the state’s eight public universities, will expire on May 7, leaving the panel with just enough members to constitute a quorum under the board’s guidelines.

Reeves’ office did not respond to questions from Mississippi Today on when he might fill the four college board seats.

“The bottom line is, Friday night at 12:01, the four trustees in our class roll off the board, and our nine-year term is over,” said Ford Dye of Oxford, the former chair of the IHL Board.

It will be difficult for the IHL Board to function with only eight members. On any issue where a member recuses themselves — which occurs nearly every meeting — the board will not have enough votes to make a decision.

In addition to the issues with the 12-member IHL Board, the nine-member state Education Board has been operating with only five members. Under that panel’s guidelines, five members constitute a quorum. A meeting in November had to be canceled because of a lack of a quorum.

Two of the vacancies on the Education Board are the governor’s responsibility to fill, while Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Philip Gunn each have one seat to fill.

To further complicate matters, the term of Northern District Education Board member Karen Elam is set to expire this June. That post also is a gubernatorial appointee. 

Education Board Chair Rosemary Aultman of Clinton said both she and state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright have inquired about the vacancies.

“We have not heard anything specifically other than an appointment was forthcoming,” she said of conversations with Reeves.

Aultman said Gunn also has assured her that he is working to fill his appointment.

“I’ve spoken with him (Gunn) about that, and he indicated that he was very much aware of it and he had two candidates he was looking at and would be making a decision soon … but it is encouraging that he is working on it,” Aultman said.

Leah Rupp, a spokesperson for Hosemann, said the lieutenant governor also is interviewing potential candidates for the Board of Education seat he is responsible for filling.

In March, legal experts told Mississippi Today there is a question of whether the appointees could begin serving prior to the next legislative session, which could be either a special session called by the governor or the 2022 regular session.

The attorney general, in a 1977 opinion, seemed to support the argument that for regularly scheduled vacancies, the governor must make the appointments in the session before the vacancy occurs or wait until the next session. The opinion stated when a “term is about to expire and will expire by limitation before the next session of the Senate, the governor should nominate a person to fill the vacancy,” and “if he fails to do so, he cannot make a valid appointment to fill such a vacancy in the vacation of the Senate.” If the governor tried to do so, it “would be to limit and abridge the right of the Senate to advise and consent to the appointment.”

A 2015 document compiled by the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee reaches essentially the same conclusion.

The PEER report said state law “requires” that the governor make the appointment in the session before any regularly scheduled vacancy set to occur within nine months of the legislative session. But the report goes on the say that in many instances, the governor has appointed someone after the session ended and that appointee began serving prior to being considered by the Senate in the next regular session.

“This practice is in direct contravention of” state law, the PEER report concluded.

A Mississippi Today analysis of previous appointments found that former governors Phil Bryant and Haley Barbour submitted their college board appointments to the Senate in the session before the appointees’ tenures began. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove made some college board appointments after the session ended, and they began serving before they were confirmed by the Senate.

In 1996, former Gov. Kirk Fordice made four college board appointments who were rejected by a Senate subcommittee in the regular session prior to when their terms were scheduled to begin. Fordice, arguing that the four had not been rejected because they were not considered by the full Senate Universities and Colleges Committee, called a special session, where they were then rejected by the full committee. Fordice later called a special session prior to the start of the next regular session where four new appointees were confirmed.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi's only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.

Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.