ATLANTA - A legislator is traveling the state trying to build support for his constitutional amendment to allow local school districts to elect their superintendent instead of a board appointment.
Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, says he sponsored House Resolution 550 because he believes, as someone who must be elected, that giving the voters a say makes for more responsive public officials.
He hastens to add that his wife and daughter are teachers and his father-in-law was an assistant superintendent. Plus, he has no complaints about his own superintendent in Pickens County.
“I like mine very well, so don’t take it that way, and it’s not personal,” he said.
The amendment wouldn’t require the election of superintendents in all 180 school districts but merely make it the option of each local legislative delegation.
“It’s an opportunity to give Georgians a choice,” said Jasperse, a retired county agent.
He introduced it fairly late in the last legislative session, so it hasn’t even been assigned to a House committee yet. To get on next year’s ballot, it would have to gain the backing of two-thirds of the House and Senate.
It already has some impressive cosponsors in former Republican Whip Ed Lindsey and Budget & Fiscal Affairs Oversight Chairman Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta.
Jasperse has been trying to build support for HR 550 by traveling the state, both in speaking to grassroots organizations and in joining the House and Senate education committees in a series of “listening sessions” in a dozen cities.
He notes that parents like the idea when they hear it, but in addressing a group of superintendents, he rightly anticipates their objections.
“I’m sure there’ll be an impassioned response,” he quipped during a session in Newnan last month.
He was right. One local superintendent called it “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
Three of the four announced candidates for state superintendent of schools oppose Jasperse’s amendment, and the fourth hasn’t said. However, the only Democrat in the race so far says she’s willing to let voters decide.
Veteran educators remember why they campaigned to get the state to end elected superintendents in 1992. They pushed a constitutional amendment then to make all superintendents appointees of a locally elected board.
“PAGE was in favor of (the change to appointments) back then because we had heard too many horror stories of the ‘politics’ that had negatively impacted instructional programs across the state,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher organization.
Since school taxes are the largest local tax most voters pay, elected superintendents face considerable pressure to cut costs to minimize them.
“I don’t think extra accountability to the public is a bad thing at all. Everybody would want that,” said Justin Pauly, spokesman for the Georgia School Boards Association. “We’re just worried about unintended consequences.”
He worries that elected superintendents will focus more on getting re-elected than on what’s best for the students.
There are a couple of practical considerations as well, Pauly said. To be elected, a candidate must reside in the district, but that prevents the regional and national talent searches many boards now use to get their system’s chief executive. Many hire consultants to screen applicants before the board even interviews them.
Political candidates aren’t subject to criminal background checks. And in Mississippi where superintendents are still elected, some districts are so small that no one runs for the job.
Another consideration is the potential for increased clashes during board meetings if everyone in the room is a politician claiming a mandate from the voters.
“Having both the board and the superintendent popularly elected could cause additional conflict in that both feel that are representing the wishes of voters,” said Matt Jones of EmpowerED Georgia. “Most Georgians do not want additional conflict on the school governance level, and such conflict could provide an avenue to jeopardize a school system’s accreditation.”
When systems have lost accreditation, it was because of constant disputes between the board and superintendent -- not student performance.
While educators have their reasons for opposing Jasperse’s amendment, the decision will come down to voters. In an era of increased populism -- from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Tea Party -- ordinary citizens are hungering for a greater say in their government, and that is what Jasperse is trying to quench.