February 12, 2014 9:51:37 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi House members like elected school superintendents so much that they're not even willing to let voters decide if they want to keep electing them.
Representatives rejected House Bill 825 on Tuesday, with 66 voting against the bill and 53 for it. It would have asked voters to choose in November whether they want to retain their elected school leader or switch to an appointed one. About 60 of Mississippi's 151 school districts have elected superintendents.
But the issue isn't dead yet. Moments after the House action, the Senate passed Senate Bill 2166. That stricter measure would mandate appointments beginning Jan. 1, 2016, unless voters sign a petition forcing a referendum to keep elections. The Senate bill will move to the House for consideration.
Critics say elected school boards and elected superintendents can become locked in political conflict. They also warn few candidates can meet election qualifications in smaller counties.
"There was a district last week that had an elected superintendent and an elected school board and they had a very bad experience," said Rep. Brad Mayo, R-Oxford, discussing a dispute that led the state Board of Education to recommend that the state take over Scott County schools.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, also cited Scott County. He noted that the three previous districts taken over by the state -- Oktibbeha County, Claiborne County and Leflore County -- all had elected superintendents.
But defenders say they don't want to deny people a vote.
"Somebody wants to take your rights away from you," said Rep. Forrest Hamilton, R-Olive Branch. "I'm up here fighting for your rights."
Hamilton gave a rollicking speech against elected superintendents for the second year in a row. He waved a Crown Royal bag with money, claiming supporters were being illicitly influenced by cash, and a paint brush claiming their defense of the bill was a "whitewash."
House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, later took offense at the implication that anyone might have been bribed.
The House's action is a retreat from 2013, when House members amended a bill like the Senate's to mandate an automatic vote. Even that was too strong Tuesday.
Only eight members voted against the bill in the Senate.
"The difficulty is that the individuals who are getting to vote on a county superintendent of education in many instances want to do that," said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, a supporter of the bill. "I once suggested to the former speaker of the House, if he had his way, we'd be voting on county brain surgeons."
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