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Mississippi Superintendent’s Loss of State Funding Complicated Story with Roots in Governance

May 30, 2016

An AP story the was the basis for a post by Diane Ravitch about the Superintendents in that state losing their funding describes three actions by the Mississippi State legislature: an act of vengeance; an act that undercut an effort to require the state to provide adequate funds for public schools; and an act to change the states local governance arrangement. Two of the actions are unarguably bad for students; the change in governance, though, might lead to improvement in the quality of schools and will certainly expand the applicant pool for superintendents.

The act of vengeance was the passage of a bill that makes it illegal for school districts to spend any public money on the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. As a result superintendents will have to dig into their pockets for $1250 per year if they want to retain their membership to the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. Why was this retributive legislation passed by the House and Senate in that state? Because leaders of local school districts “personally attacked state officials” while they were seeking passage of a constitutional amendment that would require adequate funding for schools…. hardly a revolutionary concept. But the Mississippi legislature appears to be thin skinned and vengeful— a toxic combination:

“When they attack people like that, they’re biting the hand that feeds them, and maybe the next time they need to think about that,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said Friday.

The “attack” by the Superintendents group took place last year when the Association took a stand in favor of Initiative 42, which is described in the AP article as follows:

Initiative 42 would have amended the state Constitution to require the state to provide “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” Supporters said it would have blocked lawmakers from being able to spend less than the amount required by Mississippi’s school funding formula, and would have allowed people to sue the state to seek additional money for schools.

Gov. Phil Bryant and legislative leaders opposed the measure because it could have limited legislative power and transferred some power to judges. They warned that it could have led to budget cuts to other state agencies. Lawmakers placed an alternative measure on the ballot, which made it harder to pass the measure. Voters ultimately rejected any change by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

So… last year the legislature muddied the waters when the Superintendents group tried to amend the constitution, some of the Superintendents evidently made some untoward comments about some of the legislators, and, as a result, they are being paid back. One paragraph in the AP story on this development made two astonishing points (see bold):

The move creates an uncertain future for what has traditionally been Mississippi’s most powerful school lobbying group. The long-term power of the association was already in question after lawmakers voted this year to make all superintendents appointive. Traditionally, the elected members of the association, especially those in the state’s largest school districts, have wielded the most political power.

The SUPERINTENDENTS Association was a traditionally powerful lobby? As one who served on the legislative committee in three states and served as President and legislative chair of the Superintendents Association in Maryland in the 1990s, I was stunned to read this… Our Association’ like those in other states where I worked (ME, NY, NH and VT) had limited clout when it came to passing legislation, in large measure because we could only take political positions that matched those of our local boards.

But some quick web research explained the source of MS Superintendent’s political clout and shed some light on the legislatures intent to eviscerate that clout: of the 154 elected superintendents in the U.S., 69 are in Mississippi — the most of any state.

The blog site ReThink Mississippi that appears to be genuinely committed to improving Mississippi’s woeful performance in quality of life metrics explains the consequences of elected versus appointed Superintendents in a January 2015 post by noting that elected Superintendents tend to be homegrown and focussed on political issues which, in turn, diverts their attention from academics.

Opponents of elected superintendents argue that elections narrow the talent pool to choose a qualified superintendent from due to the residency restriction that requires candidates running for election to live within the district itself. Meanwhile, in school districts where superintendents are appointed, the school boards can recruit and select qualified candidates from different districts or even different states. Appointing superintendents may be especially practical in a state like Mississippi where small school districts may not have many qualified candidates, and those that are qualified may be uninterested in campaigning.

To make it worse, many of these school district leaders are given the job by default. Thirteen school districts had uncontested races for superintendent in the 2011 elections, according to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website. In 2007, 20 races were uncontested, and in one district, no one ran at all.

In the final analysis the legislators in Mississippi could have made a reasoned argument for changing from elected to appointed positions using some of the data included in the Re-Think Mississippi article on this topic, but instead they linked it to politics.

Based on this article and the Rethink Mississippi blog post, the governance question of elected versus appointed Superintendents is muddy. Presumably if the elected superintendents and elected legislators saw eye-to-eye on funding none of this would have happened. And if the appointed Superintendents worked for Boards who wanted to avoid rocking the boat in the Statehouse this wouldn’t have happened either. The real issue is the disconnect between those elected officials who advocate for the children— the school leadership whether elected or appointed— versus those who advocate for taxpayers. Now those who seek the status quo in Mississippi— low funding for schools, low funding for social services, an low taxes for the affluent, are prevailing. And they are prevailing in more and more states.

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