School & District Management

Mississippi Law Places Tight Rein on Superintendents

By Michele McNeil — May 13, 2008 6 min read
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Mississippi is sending a strong message to its superintendents: Fix your low-performing school districts within a two-year period, or you’re out.

Under legislation signed May 12 by Gov. Haley Barbour, local superintendents would lose their jobs if their districts were labeled “underperforming” as measured by the state accountability system for two years in a row.

Elected superintendents would be removed by the governor and barred from running for re-election; appointed superintendents, already subject to dismissal depending on their contracts, would be automatically fired.

One hurdle remains before the law can go into effect: The U.S. Department of Justice must approve it because Mississippi is covered under a section of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that seeks to protect minority voting rights in areas of the country with a history of discrimination in voting. Most Southern states are still covered by the law, and must get federal approval when they seek to make any changes in election or voting procedures.

Since 65 of Mississippi’s 152 local superintendents are elected, the law could override the wishes of voters by barring them from retaining certain superintendents and removing the officials from office during their elected terms. The changes trigger the federal review, which could take months. Between 15,000 and 24,000 applications for review are submitted to the civil rights division of the Justice Department each year. According to the department, about 1 percent of applications a year are rejected.

The new law takes performance-based contracts for school leaders to a new level, said Paul Houston, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based National Association of School Administrators.

“This makes superintendents accountable to politicians, not to their local communities,” Mr. Houston said. “If they wanted to get rid of elected superintendents, there’s a proper way to do that: you change the law. This is a back-door approach.”

The law grows out of an effort by the Mississippi board of education and other education leaders to turn the superintendent posts currently filled by election into positions appointed by local school boards.

“We’re removing the rights of the electorate based on student test scores. It’s undemocratic,” said Sam Bounds, the executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. Mr. Bounds pointed out that in 1988, voters in each of the 65 counties with elected superintendent were asked on a ballot whether they wanted to keep an elected superintendent or switch to an appointed one. A majority of voters in each of those counties voted to stick with their elected superintendents, who serve four-year terms.

Mississippi is one of just three states, along with Alabama and Florida, that have any elected district superintendents, according to state officials.

Supporters of the push to have all superintendents appointed say elected leaders are, by the nature of how they get their jobs, forced to be more political. The elected-chief system, its critics say, also poses a challenge in recruiting candidates for some districts because well-qualified administrators may not want to wage campaigns to get the jobs. And elected superintendents must live in their districts, a requirement that tends to limit the geographical diversity of candidates.

“Clearly, we have some excellent elected superintendents,” state school board Chairman Claude Hartley said in March, when the legislation was introduced. “However, this system limits the pool from which you are able to draw. We want to be able to attract the best of the best, which means we may have to recruit across the state and across the nation. Districts with appointed superintendents are able to do just that.”

Although the board and state Superintendent of Education Hank M. Bounds (who is not related to Sam Bounds of the superintendents’ group) were pushing the legislature to eliminate all elected positions, the state chief said there was little support for that step. But there was support for legislation looking at school district leaders regardless of their appointed or elected status, he said in an interview.

In addition, the superintendent said there was initial support for looking at new accountability measures for school boards, which will likely be an issue in next year’s legislative session.

Still, the new law isn’t just about elected versus appointed superintendents, the schools chief said. He pointed out that about 12 to 15 district leaders could be affected by the new law—and 10 of them are appointed.

“We have some fantastic school districts, but we also have districts that are not doing the right thing,” Superintendent Bounds said. “This is about districts that have a high number of emergency-licensed teachers but won’t even go to recruiting fairs. This isn’t about adults beating up on adults, but about very, very low-performing school districts.”

Complex New System

Under the new law, a superintendent would be removed if the district was labeled “underperforming” or if at least half its schools fell into that category for two consecutive years.

If the superintendent had been appointed, the local school board would choose a replacement. In the case of an elected superintendent, the governor would remove the superintendent from office, and the ousted chief would be barred from running again for at least four years.

But the process of replacing an elected superintendent would be complicated under the new law. The district’s school board would first have to place an advertisement in a local newspaper telling voters they could turn the elected position into an appointed one by submitting a petition with the signatures of at least 20 percent of the registered voters. If the petition drive succeeded, a special election would be held. If voters decided to turn the job into an appointed one, the local school board would fill the job. But if voters decided to keep the elected post, a second election would be held to choose the replacement.

Originally, supporters of the law had wanted a position to switch automatically from elected to appointed if a superintendent was evicted from office. But the final bill included the petition drive and special-election process as part of a legislative compromise.

Even if the Justice Department approves the law, questions remain, including what it means for a school or district to be “underperforming.” The state education department just this year started a new assessment system called Mississippi Curriculum Test 2 and will be readjusting its accountability definitions and categories. Mr. Bounds, the state education chief, said districts won’t be put into categories until at least the end of the 2008-09 school year.

In addition, superintendents wonder when the clock starts on “two consecutive years” of underperformance. Is it when the first round of new accountability designations comes out, typically in the summer, reflecting tests taken in the just-ended year? Or will the clock start the following school year, or at some other point?

Those concerns weren’t enough to persuade Gov. Barbour, a Republican, to veto the bill. In signing it, he called the law an “important tool” in education reform. “This bill ensures that the leaders of our school districts are held accountable for their performance in making sure our children are receiving the best education as possible,” he said in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2008 edition of Education Week as Mississippi Law Places Tight Rein on Superintendents

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