Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, discusses Senate Bill No. 2001 during a special session at the Capitol in Jackson Monday, August 27, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Terri Hill from Jones County has been working as a school attendance officer for 26 years. After taxes, she takes home about $28,000.

Legislation to increase the base salary for Hill and her colleagues — who were left out of teacher and state worker pay raises in recent years — passed the Senate unanimously but was killed last week by House Education Committee Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach.

“He is a brick wall that we can’t get around,” said April Brewer, the school attendance officer for Lamar County. 

Brewer, a mother of seven, has been at the job for 11 years. But with a $30,000 salary, she’s had to consistently work two additional jobs.

Bennett did not return several Mississippi Today efforts to reach him for comment.

With such low pay, the Mississippi Department of Education has a hard time retaining these workers, who, when effective, play a significant role in the wellbeing of children in Mississippi.

READ MORE: State truancy officers face stagnant pay and ‘unmanageable caseloads’

The shortage of attendance officers in the state has resulted in massive, unmanageable caseloads, the officers say. In some counties, one officer is responsible for as many as 10,000 students. When this happens, officers get too many referrals for children missing school that they can’t adequately assess the problem and try to address the students’ needs.

These state workers are direct employees of MDE but work locally in each county. They work in different offices, some stationed inside school district buildings while others work out of local courthouses.

Spread out and tucked away, this is likely one reason the officers feel they’ve been so ignored.

Mississippi Today spoke with several school attendance officers in the fall who said MDE has not consistently supplied them with the materials they need: paper, ink, and stamps for the letters they’re required by law to send to the parents of truant children. They say they’ve also had trouble getting reimbursed for the travel expenses they incur making home visits to find out why kids are not in school. Brewer said these issues persist.

“The Mississippi Department of Education understands the Student Attendance Officers’ concerns and plans to continue working with the Legislature as it relates to overall agency funding,” MDE said to Mississippi Today in a statement Friday.

MDE has proposed the solution of moving school attendance officers to the local school districts. But bills to accomplish this also died this legislative session.

Brewer said that option, however, presents a possible conflict of interest. Part of a school attendance officer’s job is to ensure that the state’s truancy statutes are being followed — and that includes by schools. An example is the requirement that schools allow homeless students to enroll.

“How do we tell our superintendent, ‘You’re not complying with the law,’ when they can just say, ‘Hey, you work for me,’” Brewer said.

School attendance officers also work with kids outside the public school districts — homeschool and private school students — and Brewer worries that being employees of the school district could prevent officers from working in the best interest of all students.

Brenda Scott, longtime president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees workers union, is representing the officers at the legislature this session. She recognizes that it often takes years for lobbying efforts to bear fruit.

Currently, school attendance officers must have at least a bachelor’s degree and their salaries are set in statute. After 17 years, an officer with a bachelor’s degree can earn no more than $31,182. With a master’s degree, they can start out making $26,000 and cap out at $37,000 after 21 years.

“He (Rep. Bennett) thinks that they’re receiving adequate pay and I just don’t see how he could think that,” Scott said.

Their bill, Senate Bill 2777, would have increased the baseline pay for school attendance officers by $5,000, bringing the floor for workers with a bachelor up from $24,500 to $29,500.

With her 11 years, Brewer’s salary would increase to a minimum of $39,050. The starting pay for public school teachers is $41,500.

The bill also included a new $250,000 cap on the salary for the state superintendent, who currently earns $300,000.

Brewer said they had enough support in both the Education Committee and full House of Representatives to get the bill passed. But Bennett would not take up the bill in his committee. It’s still possible for the Senate to amend the existing House education appropriations bill to include the changes, but then the legislation would have to go to conference in the House, potentially meeting the same hurdle.

Brewer said that the school attendance officer in Bennett’s hometown, Long Beach, is “also in a county with over 30,000 students and there’s only two workers.”

“It’s not going to get better,” she said.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.