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Miss. Judges Agree To Hire Attendance Officers

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Jackson, Miss--Apparently responding to public pressure, two Mississippi chancery judges have agreed to hire the school-attendance officers required by the state's new compulsory-attendance law. But one judge, who has jurisdiction over two counties, still refuses to hire the officers, saying that he does not think it is part of a chancery judge's job.

Adopted by Mississippi lawmakers during a December 1982 special session on education, the attendance law applies to 1st graders this year and will be phased in to include students up to age 13 by 1990. The law, enacted as part of a comprehensive reform package backed by former Gov. William Winter, is viewed as a key part of educational improvement because the state historically has a high rate of early dropouts.

The officers' job is to monitor the attendance of schoolchildren and counsel parents when problems arise. In extreme cases, parents may be fined or jailed for "educational ne-glect," according to the statute.

Until last week, eight of the state's 82 counties still lacked attendance officers, although the deadline for hiring them passed five months ago.

The three chancery judges' earlier refusal to hire the officers prompted criticism from state authorities. Dick Molpus, the secretary of state and a member of the state board of education, said that at least 900 children aged 6 and 7 were staying out of school in the counties that lacked attendance officers. Prior to the law's enactment, that figure stood at about 6,000, he said.

Teachers also were "dismayed" over the problem and queried a number of chancery judges about it, said Barbara Hogan, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators.

Two judges, W.E. Bearden Jr. and Woodrow Brand, told the Mississippi Board of Education last week that they will hire officers for the six counties over which they have jurisdiction. However, the judges declined to say why they had reversed their position.

Chancery Judge Nat Bullard, who is responsible for hiring the officers from Sharkey and Issaquena Counties, still refuses to take action.

In response to requests from the 13,000-member mae, a subcommittee of the House Education Committee will monitor the judges' compliance with the school-attendance law, according to Representative Robert Clark, chairman of the full committee.--Andy Kanengiser

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