In most counties in Mississippi, local elections are often decided in the primary. This year, the chief contest in Rankin County was electing the superintendent for one of the largest school districts in the state.
Brett Kittredge, writing for Empower Mississippi, a nonprofit education advocacy group, says he is a Rankin County resident with two young children.
He adds the person who was elected was a good choice and will do a grand job. But during the election, he wondered why private citizens were choosing a superintendent of education. He was also curious to know if there was a better candidate outside the county and what counties that didn’t have 150,000 people to choose from did about finding a superintendent.
Mississippi is one of only three states that still elect school superintendents, with most states requiring the school leaders to be appointed by local school boards.
The Mississippi legislature has been debating the issue for the last several years, with the dominant formula being to appoint all superintendents and elect all school boards. But the measures have never made it to the desk of the governor.
Appointed superintendents seem to build powerful political machines in their home counties and become effective lobbyists in the legislative hallways. They are likely to construct systems of patronage or nepotism and push aside the business of focusing on their school district, according to Kittredge.
Currently, about half of the state’s superintendents are elected, and the rest are appointed by local school boards. According to the newest accountability rankings from the Mississippi Department of Education, 14 of the 19 A-rated districts in the state have superintendents who are appointed.
Kittredge says many are hopeful that a law will be passed to change the system to all-appointed superintendents this session. He explains that doing so will remove much of the political wrangling and will create a larger pool from which to choose a qualified leader.
WLBT-TV’s Courtney Ann Jackson quoted a statement made by Gov. Phil Bryant last week:
“You will see us talk about appointed school superintendents, not electing them.”
But Mississippi Association of School Superintendents President Dr. Sam Bounds questions why a change needs to be made if there is less than 1% difference in student outcomes between appointed and elected superintendents.
It is possible that moving to an all-appointed system could mean a salary increase for districts that currently have elected school leaders. Salaries are often higher for appointed leaders to attract the most qualified candidates.
“I’ve seen superintendents during the third year, if they have an opponent, are spending time focusing on running a political campaign,” said Dr. Ray Morgigno, Pearl superintendent.
On Wednesday, the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents (MASS) shared 24 legislative issues that would be priorities for the new session. The three categories included instruction, quality leadership, and facilities and technology. No mention was made of funding for any of the intentions, reports The Clarion-Ledger’s Kate Royals.
The association said that programs for attracting teachers, especially in areas with critical need, are on top of the list. Scott Cantrell, the association’s president, stated that the number one predictor of achievement for students is a quality teacher and the number of young people majoring in education in Mississippi colleges and universities is decreasing.
Bounds said that in spite of the fact that MASS has opposed appointed superintendents in the past, the organization is not taking an official stance at this time.