February 13, 2014 10:04:18 AM
This week, efforts to make uniform how Mississippi selects its school superintendents continue in the Legislature.
While the House rejected a bill that would have put the issue of making all superintendents appointed positions to voters in November, a Senate bill passed would mandate appointed superintendents in 2016 unless voters sign a petition to force a referendum to keep elections. That bill now goes to the House for consideration.
The only thing clear about this issue is that there is no clear consensus for either appointed or elected superintendents among lawmakers.
As present, each district can determine for itself the method of choosing a school superintendent.
In Lowndes County, we have both methods. The superintendent for Columbus schools is appointed while the county's is elected.
Across the state, 63 districts, roughly 40 percent, elect their superintendents.
Efforts to bring uniformity to the process has been going on for years. Yet none of those efforts have argued that all superintendents be elected. Rather, the push has been to give the school boards the responsibility of choosing superintendents.
Proponents of appointed superintendents, which includes parents advocate groups such as The Parent's Campaign, make forceful arguments.
For starters, an elected superintendent has a degree of autonomy that appointed superintendents do not enjoy. While, at least in theory, elected superintendents answer to the school board, the board cannot fire a superintendent. Instead, a failing superintendent can only be replaced when his or her four-year term ends. Last June, the CMSD fired its superintendent, Dr. Martha Liddell, after one year. Had Liddell been an elected superintendent, she could not have been replaced for another three years and then only through the election process.
Beyond that, it should be noted that elected superintendents, like all other elected officials, must reside in the district. That severely limits the pool of qualified applicants. In fact, among the districts that elect their superintendents, the field of candidates has proven to be extremely limited. In 2011, 13 superintendents ran unopposed. Four of those districts were rated as under-performing districts and six of those same districts had at least one school that was rated as under-performing by the Mississippi Department of Education. Three of those districts had schools that were rated as failing.
In the previous election cycle of 2007, 20 of the 63 districts had uncontested races for superintendent. One district had no one run for the position; the retiring superintendent agreed to stay on until a special election could be held to fill the position after a long search for a single candidate.
Finally, elected superintendents, like all elected officials, keep one eye on politics. Often, superintendents are required to make difficult choices, which are certain to alienate some members of the community. An elected official intent on keeping his or her job is mindful of this. Often, the path a superintendent takes on these kinds of matters is not the path forward, but the path of least resistance.
What, then, is the argument for electing superintendents?
Just this: Residents have a direct voice in who is chosen. Any move to take the decision-making process out of the hands of the people whose taxes support those institutions should be carefully considered.
And, of course, there are appointed superintendents who do a lousy job, too. In most cases, bad school boards appoint bad superintendents. So, clearly, appointing superintendents is no guarantee of competence.
But on balance, what is best for all the stakeholders, including the taxpayers, is that this position be filled by a person who is held accountable for his or her performance on a daily basis rather than every four years.
Given that, we support the effort to make all schools superintendents appointed positions.