January 27, 2018 10:15:24 PM
JACKSON -- Elections for some Mississippi school boards would be changed under a bill advancing in the state Senate.
The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday approved Senate Bill 2400, sending it to the full Senate for more debate.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell, a Southaven Republican, wants to keep elections nonpartisan, but have board members all run together for four-year terms in the same election when Mississippi chooses its governor, starting in 2023.
He said the new date would guarantee more voter participation than elections held when no other offices are on the ballot.
"At our regular state government election, turnout may be a lot greater," Blackwell said.
Board members who are appointed right now by mayors and others would remain appointed. That's different from proposals championed by some lawmakers to elect all local school board members, in part to hold boards accountable for their authority to raise property taxes.
Blackwell said his bill would standardize the many methods under which Mississippi's school districts now elect their members.
One common way is electing one member every five years for five-year terms. Others elect members for staggered six-year terms. Some city districts with territory outside city limits elect one or two members.
Other members of the committee, though, said they feared that electing all members at one time could allow voters to turn out a whole board at once, creating a gap in continuity.
"There's a danger with throwing out all five people at once," said Sen. David Blount, a Jackson Democrat. He said he feared the schedule would further politicize school board races, even if candidates don't officially identify with a party.
Blackwell pledged to work with Sen. Briggs Hopson, a Vicksburg Republican who represents school boards as a lawyer, to consider staggered terms. He said his bill isn't "getting rid of incumbents," saying wholesale turnover was unlikely.
Blount also raised concerns about what would happen if a runoff were necessary for any candidate to gain a majority. Such runoffs would be scheduled in late November, possibly in the same week as Thanksgiving. Mississippi judicial elections currently hold runoffs on that schedule and often see low turnout.
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