It was fall 1997, and the situation was unlike any the Lowndes County School District had ever faced. Halfway through his second term, Superintendent Tommy Smith disappeared. He stopped attending meetings, stopped returning phone calls and left the state.
No one knew what to do. If he were appointed, he could be fired and replaced, but the county school system was — and still is — one of the few districts in the nation to have an elected superintendent. The only way to replace Smith was to hold a new election, and until he contacted someone, nothing could be done. Eventually, Smith called and said he was burned out; he dreaded coming to work; he promised to resign. Days passed, then weeks.
Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, remembers that cold December well. He was an LCSD board member at the time, and he vowed that if he made it to the state Legislature, no school board in Mississippi would ever be hamstrung by an elected superintendent again. Since his election to the state House of Representatives in 1999, Chism has introduced 12 bills trying to mandate appointed superintendents, but every time the issue comes up for a vote, it is defeated. In January, Chism intends to try one more time, hoping 13 ends up being his lucky number.
The legislation is heavily backed by the Mississippi Board of Education, which plans to discuss the matter at its annual leadership conference in November. Currently, only 147 of the nation”s 14,500 school districts have elected superintendents; 64 of those elected superintendents are in Mississippi, and the remainder are in Alabama and Florida.
Chism, along with supporters of the bill, believes appointing superintendents removes the politics from the position, allowing board members to select the best candidate for the job and freeing the superintendent to make tough, but necessary choices without fear of ballot-box backlash.
“When you have a superintendent and a board at odds, there needs to be some way to be able to resolve that issue,” Chism said Friday morning. “The board is not to do the day-to-day running of a school district, but when you have a superintendent that won”t make a decision, it”s really hard for the board to get anything accomplished.”
Appointing a superintendent also removes popularity from the process, said LCSD Board Attorney and state Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, (no relation to former LCSD Superintendent Tommy Smith.)
Smith remembers December 1997”s leadership limbo, too, because he remembers calling the attorney general”s office to ask what could be done about an itinerant superintendent and being told “We don”t really know, but if you figure it out, tell us.”
Lafayette County”s successful overturn of the state law in 2009 “breathed life back into the idea of appointed superintendents,” Smith said, and he and Chism are hopeful that by tweaking the bill to affect only Lowndes County instead of school districts across the state, perhaps it will pass the House this time.
The issue has detractors as well as supporters, particularly among Delta legislators, whom Chism said tend to lean toward elected superintendents “possibly because they feel like they would be able to elect a black to that position.”
“A lot of white areas, too, just don”t want to give up their right to select somebody. …We like to make them come and stand before us every four years,” he said Saturday morning.
Smith used to feel the same way.
“When I got elected to the Legislature, I was die-hard for elected officials until we had the experience with our superintendent,” he said. “Then I realized this was an untenable situation.”
The Lowndes County School District board of education plans to discuss the pending legislation at its regular meeting Oct. 14. For the law to be changed, the request must first be approved by the county school board, then approved by the state Legislature and Justice Department and offered as a referendum in the county.
Even if the bill passes, it will not affect the tenure of the school board”s next superintendent, who will be elected to a four-year term during the Nov. 8 general election.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.