House bill could impact Tupelo School Board

As was examined in Sunday’s Daily Journal, state lawmakers are considering school governance changes that could make all of the state’s superintendents of education into appointed positions and all of its school boards into elected ones.

If House Bill 442 — which would elect all school board members — passes as is, it would dramatically change the current makeup of Tupelo’s School Board.

Members of that board — like those in most municipal school districts — are appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. Members of county school districts, on the other hand, are generally elected.

Each of Tupelo’s five school board members said they would not have sought election if they had not been appointed.

“I have a full time commitment to my business,” said Board President Rob Hudson, who owns and operates several McDonald’s restaurants in the region. “The thought of having to campaign is not something I would ever desire. Politics is not for me.”

If the position were switched to an elected one, Sherry Davis and Joe Babb said they would have to think hard about running for their seat, but both said they did not think they would do so. The other three board members also said they would not run.

“You will not see a ‘Vote for Ken Wheeler’ sign in your yard,” said Board Vice President Ken Wheeler. “That gets into politics, and I’m not a politician, I’m a ground worker. I want to serve the community any way I can, but don’t want politics involved in what I do.”

That means Tupelo could find itself with five completely different board members in 2017. Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton has said the city is considering a passing a resolution stating its opposition to the bill. Shelton said it should be on the next council agenda and that, at a minimum, the administration will advocate to exempt Tupelo from the bill. Corinth has also passed such a resolution.

“It is fair to say, we would not have the board we have now, if elections were required,” Hudson said.

Most of the current school board members cited their reluctance to be involved in a political campaign among their reasons for not wanting to seek an elected seat. Proponents of appointed school boards note that they attract citizens who want to serve their communities when asked but who are not drawn to politics.

“If it was an elected position I would not run,” said Eddie Prather. “To me personally, you want to serve and shape policy and educate kids. I am not a politician.

“…I’m assuming if you are running for office, you have to promise things you would do if you were elected, and if I wasn’t involved in schools and didn’t know the board’s role, I would make promises I really couldn’t do. I wouldn’t want to get out and campaign and say I’d do certain things and them not be in my realm of possibility.”

Davis said she would be concerned about the time that would be involved in seeking election.

“I really don’t have that kind of time to devote to it,” she said. “It takes a lot of time. And you’d have to fund-raise. I’d have to pray about it and think about it, I wouldn’t want to spend more personal time just to get elected besides studying and being the best school board member I can be.

“It all comes with agendas when it comes to elections.”

Meanwhile, Babb said, the lack of elections can help the board’s cohesivness.

“It is hard for me to imagine a scenario that I would run,” he said. “It is not really my personality to start with. It takes time it takes to run.

“That is a shame because we have a good board. It is political in a sense but when you take out the election part of it, it becomes less political, which allows us to work better without politics being involved and things like campaign promises.”

Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said an advantage of an appointed board is that members are concerned about the district as a whole, rather than a constituency that pressures them to favor a particular school.

He also noted that a strength of Tupelo’s board has been that the mayors and city council members have been deliberate about keeping it diverse, with a wide arrange of backgrounds and areas of expertise.

Loden also said he does not like that the House Bill could lead to the turnover of an entire board, as all five members would be up for election in 2016. Afterward, terms would be staggered so that every two years, either two or three board members would face re-election for four-year terms.

That a board majority could turn over at one time is dangerous, he said. For one, he said, it takes board members time to get up to speed on the background of school law and finances and the role of board members. Also, he said, one decision  — such as a school closure or a controversial personnel move — could have a detrimental ripple effect.

To read more about the current makeup of Tupelo’s school board, here is a story that looks at each member’s background: “Tupelo School Board now filled”