Steve Mullen: Elected, appointed — or none at all?

January 27, 2010 9:38:00 AM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


We often find ourselves choosing sides. Dogs or cats. Coke or Pepsi. New Orleans or Indianapolis. Jay or Conan.  


And now, elected or appointed -- school superintendents, that is. 


Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, has introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would require all state superintendents to be appointed rather than elected. Mississippi has 152 school districts; 65 of those districts have elected superintendents. 


On its face, it seems like a good idea. Elected school superintendents may not be as qualified to hold the office as appointed ones, in theory -- a district advertising for candidates would get a larger pool of applicants, for instance, than a few local people running for the office who already reside in a given county. 


Also, proponents of appointed superintendents often argue that appointed administrators are more removed from the whims and wishes of the electorate -- removed from politics, they may be more apt to make difficult decisions that some parents might not like, but might be in the best interest of their kids. 


"Do we have good elected superintendents? You bet," Chism said in a Dispatch story this week. "But do we have some that ought not be superintendent ... Sometimes, you can have someone who is a good politician, but doesn''t know a thing about administration." 


Even Mike Halford, the elected superintendent of the Lowndes County School District, is in the camp of appointed superintendents. Halford was unopposed in his re-election to a second term. The appointed system "appointed just works better," he said, noting it also "opens up the opportunities for a larger field of applicants." 


The numbers are on their side. Only three states -- Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- allow for elected superintendents. Of the 30,000 superintendents nationwide, only 101 are elected. 


So, why not make this change? Seems it''s a good idea. 


Yet I can''t help but think elected superintendents also make sense. Some reasons: 


· While an elected superintendent could arguably be more swayed by an electorate, he or she is also more likely to listen to his or her constituents -- to hear out the folks he is serving, and weigh that public input into decision-making.  


· Under the law, any average yokel, such as myself, can''t run for the office anyway. "No person shall be eligible to the office of superintendent of schools unless such person shall hold a valid administrator''s license issued by the State Department of Education and shall have had not less than four years of classroom or administrative experience," according to the law. So, these folks have to have at least some experience (and strengthening this qualification might be easier to swallow in the Legislature than abolishing elected officials all together). 


· In the end, appointed superintendents get appointed by elected boards. Those superintendents are only as good as the elected board''s decision. (While board members often have some tie to education, they are not required to do so.) And, appointed superintendents play politics too: They have to keep a majority of board members happy if they want their contract renewed. 


That said, I''m not arguing that elected superintendents are better than appointed ones. Few could argue that Del Phillips, the appointed leader of the Columbus district, hasn''t breathed new life into the city schools, with progressive ideas including magnet campuses and year-round schedules. And Halford, who is elected, oversees county schools with solid student achievement. Both are a good fit. 


But in the end, it''s all about the kids. Which system -- elected or appointed -- has a bigger impact on student performance? A study conducted in 2007 by researchers at the University of Alabama''s Department of Economics, Finance and Legal Studies looked at student test scores in Alabama systems with both elected and appointed leaders. In the end, it found little difference in student performance. According to the study, performance hinged more on students'' economic status, and per-pupil spending. 


Speaking of students'' economic status and per-pupil spending, Mississippi happens to be near the bottom in both areas, according to Census figures. (A Census report issued in January 2009, that uses data from 2006-07, ranks Mississippi 46th in the amount of money spent on per student.) With the economy in the tank and the Legislature considering more cuts to education, we''re falling farther behind. 


While we can debate whether appointed superintendents are better than elected ones, having them around at all seems to be a good idea -- especially during the Great Recession, when leadership and oversight are needed to help guide districts through tough times. Yet Mississippi is considering consolidating districts. Translation: Dilute oversight, whether it''s from an elected school board or superintendent, to save some bucks on administration salaries. 


Gov. Haley Barbour, who wants to cut Mississippi''s 152 school districts to 100, has appointed a committee of legislators, educators and business leaders to look at consolidation options. The committee''s report is due April 1. 


Coke or Pepsi? Elected or appointed? Either way, many Mississippians may end up with fewer choices.

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.