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School leaders disagree with House bill

House Bill 958, which would make use of “school district time, equipment, supplies or personnel” by administrators to communicate support or opposition for any political parties or ideas subject to a fine of up to $250, has intensified tensions between some school administrators and the House Education Committee.

This bill, authored by District 83 Rep. Greg Snowden, follows a much harsher bill written by Education Committee chairman and District 60 Rep. John Moore — HB 49.

HB 49 died in committee, but it contains similar language to HB 958. The biggest differences are in section 4 of the bill which describe the penalty. HB 49 made violation of its terms a misdemeanor subject to a $10,000 fine on the first violation. The second violation would include the fine and also “revocation of professional license and certification by the State Board of Education.”

In HB 958, fines would be handed out by the Secretary of State following a complaint. The bill does not specify how a complaint would be filed, and there is no threat of a revoked license. The bill also excludes teachers from the bill and adds college administrators.

Brookhaven School District Board of Trustees Chairperson James Tillman said he agrees with some aspects of the bill, but it could have a chilling effect on administrators in its current form.

“I’m only speaking for myself because we haven’t discussed this in any meeting,” Tillman said. “I would ask representatives to vote ‘no’ on it in its present form. I think it goes a little to far. It prohibits administrators, as well as board members, from using their official capacity to lobby the Legislature if they think it’s something that’s detrimental to the school system. I don’t think that’s right.

“If you called me about an issue, I would be a little reluctant about saying anything. We are elected to represent our children and our community. If we see something that’s detrimental to them, then I think we have an obligation to speak. Now we expect the teachers and the principals to be in the schools working. The superintendent is the spokesman for the district, and he should have some input, as well as your board members.”

The bill would also make it a violation for school administrators to coerce, directly or indirectly, political support from any school institution or personnel. Enterprise Attendance Center Principal Shannon Eubanks said he has no problem with that provision in the bill.

“The only issue is how do you define ‘coerced’,” Eubanks said. “It’s probably legal, but it’s depending on how it’s interpreted and enforced. I don’t think anyone is going to disagree that people shouldn’t be forced to go out campaigning. It is a campaign issue more than a speech issue.”

Eubanks said the friction between school groups and the Education Committee is a real problem.

“When John Moore was named to House Education, more than a few heads were scratched in Jackson,” Eubanks said. “I don’t think you’re going to find a whole bunch that are going to say he was a good House Education Committee appointment. If there’s anything controversial, anything head-scratching on the House committee, his name’s attached to it.

“There’s not as much crazy that comes out on the Senate side as the House side. There is a lot of consternation towards the House committee. There are bills that he tried to push through that came out as being very acerbic to educators.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, who said she hasn’t decided yet where she stands on HB 958, agrees that there is bad blood on both sides.

“It will take somebody stretching out the olive branch, and yet at this point nobody has done it. Either side. I’m not sure how that gamut will run, and it’s something that honestly I’m not in charge of,” she said. “There’s a lot of things we’ve done over the last hundred years that aren’t working anymore. When you go to change anything, nobody likes change. Instead of sitting down and working things out so it’s good for everybody, they just bash us. There’s hurt feelings on both sides, as childish as it may sound. Somebody has got to sit down with the olive branch. That’s between the speaker and the chairman of education, and I’m not any one of those. But at some point, this will get better. It can’t get worse.”