Lawmakers Ban Cash for Superintendents' Group After Election

— State lawmakers have made it illegal for school districts to spend any public money on the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, saying leaders of local school districts personally attacked state officials while they were seeking votes for a school funding initiative last year.

"When they attack people like that, they're biting the hand that feeds them, and maybe the next time they need to think about that," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said Friday.

The move creates an uncertain future for what has traditionally been Mississippi's most powerful school lobbying group. The long-term power of the association was already in question after lawmakers voted this year to make all superintendents appointive. Traditionally, the elected members of the association, especially those in the state's largest school districts, have wielded the most political power.

Initiative 42 would have amended the state Constitution to require the state to provide "an adequate and efficient system of free public schools." Supporters said it would have blocked lawmakers from being able to spend less than the amount required by Mississippi's school funding formula, and would have allowed people to sue the state to seek additional money for schools.

Gov. Phil Bryant and legislative leaders opposed the measure because it could have limited legislative power and transferred some power to judges. They warned that it could have led to budget cuts to other state agencies. Lawmakers placed an alternative measure on the ballot, which made it harder to pass the measure. Voters ultimately rejected any change by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

Supporters of the campaign accused Frierson and others of engaging in scare tactics over potential budget cuts, but Frierson said superintendents' criticism of lawmakers was too much.

"They crossed the line in the 42 campaign when they called members of the leadership liars and attacked their integrity," Frierson said of superintendents. "There's very little trust between the leadership and school administrators and most of it goes back to the 42 campaign."

The association had already altered its approach, announcing in January a legislative agenda that omitted direct mention of the funding formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Instead superintendents said increasing student achievement was their top legislative goal. Also, Executive Director Sam Bounds was less visible in the Capitol than in previous years.

Frierson, who plans to resign his seat at the end of June to become revenue commissioner, is himself a former public school teacher. He also pushed an unsuccessful bill this year that would have frozen superintendents' salaries for three years.

House Bill 1643 had originally banned spending state education aid on the superintendents association, but that ban would have accomplished little because districts could have spent local or federal money. After a House-Senate conference report was adopted on April 18, Frierson and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, won unanimous consent from members of their chambers to make additional changes. Among those changes was an additional clause in Section 44 of the bill stating a school district would forfeit all state aid by paying any public money to the superintendents' group.

Monroe County School Superintendent Scott Cantrell, the association's president, said officials didn't learn of the overall ban until mid-May. No one told them directly why lawmakers took action. When told Friday of Frierson's reason, Cantrell said "Wow."

Clinton Superintendent Phil Burchfield, the association's treasurer, said he didn't think superintendents went too far in the Initiative 42 campaign.

"I think any superintendent would have to lobby for kids in their district and I think that's what everybody did," Burchfield said. "We asked them to be informed about what Initiative 42 did."

Now, association leaders face the loss of a majority of its revenue. Of $1.1 million collected in 2014, an IRS filing shows $650,000 came from dues and conference fees. The association charges $1,250 a year dues per district and charges people to attend its conferences, including a $350-per-person registration for its July meeting at Biloxi's Beau Rivage Casino and Resort. Many school administrators use the group's two yearly conferences to earn continuing education credits needed to renew state teaching licenses.

Cantrell said association leaders are concerned about conference turnout, saying the group contracted to pay certain amounts to the hotel.

"All of a sudden, there's this big question," he said. "Can anybody come? Can we survive? Are there any options?"

For his part, Frierson said he's not concerned if the public funding ban kills the association: "If it does, it does."


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