With plan to appoint school board members, are Lincoln County voters losing their voice?

Published 10:15 pm Friday, November 17, 2017

The state Attorney General’s Office is looking into whether the Lincoln County School Board is acting illegally by appointing members for the next seven years rather than letting the people vote candidates into public office.

Jim Keith, the board’s attorney, said he met with Jim Hood’s office last year and made a proposal about how to best get the board’s election schedule, which was off kilter, back on track. He’s not sure when the six-year staggered terms were held on the wrong years, but his proposal, he said, would fix the problem.

In Keith’s plan, when a board member’s term expires, the board will appoint someone to fill the vacancy until the correct election date, he said. District 1 and 2 seats (Kay Coon and Johnny Hart) will be appointed from 2019-2023 and District 3 and 4 seats (Diane Gill and Ricky Welch) will be appointed from 2022-2025. The District 5 seat was appointed by the other four board members in January. It went to Joanna Posey, who will serve through 2021. Posey replaced her father-in-law, Michael Posey, on the board.

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The problem with Keith’s proposal is that it allows for the board to appoint themselves and from 2019 to 2021, three of the board members will be appointed and from 2022 to 2023, four of the members will be appointed.

Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said she is concerned about taking the people’s voice away.

“The schools are run by the people, they belong to the people and they are paid for by we the people,” she said. “Reappointing yourself is a novel approach. I would love to be able to do so myself but by law I have to run, get elected and take an oath of office before I can serve. The same goes for the school board members.”

State law now requires that school boards appoint a superintendent of education, an office that has been elected in the past. That means that a majority of board members who were not elected to office will select the superintendent in 2019 with no input from the public.

The other problem with Keith’s plan is that the Attorney General’s Office said it never approved it.

“Although attorneys in the AG’s opinion division received calls and had discussions with Mr. Keith and others about this issue, they did not approve this plan,” said AG spokeswoman Margaret Morgan.

Morgan said the Attorney General’s Office sent a letter Nov. 8 requesting records that are necessary to determine the proper status of the school board members.

The letter, from Phil Carter, special assistant attorney general for Jim Hood, was addressed to Keith and Superintendent Mickey Myers. Carter said the AG’s office has been asked to determine whether the election of the members is being conducted at the proper times as required by statute. 

Carter requested Keith and Myers to send a copy of the minutes of the school board that showed when the five single member districts were adopted, documentation showing that the single member district lines adopted were pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice and copies of any consent decree and citations of any litigation that may have an impact on the election.

Former Enterprise Principal Billy Britt, who was superintendent from 1996-2000, said one election was held while he was in office and it was on the correct schedule.

“I tried to make sure that when there was an election due, an election was held,” he said. “I made sure the election was on the ballot so I know that one was held on schedule.”

Britt said he is OK with a superintendent being appointed, but not board members.

“If the superintendent’s going to be appointed, then the board needs to be elected,” he said. “The appointment of a superintendent is very important and I think you need to have people who are very capable and qualified to make that decision.”

He believes that appointing board members is taxation without representation for voters.

“I personally don’t see how it’s legal,” he said.

Former Superintendent Terry Brister, who is now principal at Enterprise, said he believes it’s the state or county’s responsibility to let the district know when it’s time to have an election since it’s the state that sets the schedule.

Brister was superintendent from 2004 until Myers took office in 2016.

“Lincoln County School Board and school officials don’t set the election. That comes out of the state,” he said. “They make us aware. I don’t know of us ever setting up those things ourselves.”

Brister said if the schedule got off during his term as superintendent it wasn’t intentional. He said it appears that the state thought the school district was setting the elections and the district thought it was the state’s duty.

“I think it’s a little bit of everyone’s fault and nobody wants to take the blame for it,” he said.

Lincoln County Circuit Clerk Dustin Bairfield said it’s the school district’s responsibility to let him know when an election is needed.

He said he doesn’t know how it was handled before he took office in 2012, but he checks with the district to make sure he’s not missing an election.

“We call them each year and ask if they have anything that needs to be on the ballot,” he said. “We noticed that it wasn’t in sync the first of last year.”

Bairfield said he’s called the AG’s office and is waiting for a response to see if it will be legal for an appointed board to appoint a superintendent in 2019.

He too believes that it’s taxation without representation.

“They would need to go ahead and have special elections,” he said.

State lawmakers feel an election is the best choice.

“I think there should be an school board election in 2019,” said Rep. Vince Mangold, R-Brookhaven. “There’s plenty of time to get it set up and back on the right election cycle. I am in favor of appointing superintendents and if this plan moves forward, we can only hope that the board will make a good decision.”

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, said she spoke to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s office Friday about the issue. “I was told that the Attorney General’s Office would be handling the matter,” she said. “I would be in favor of a special election to fill the seats and plan to investigate why that has not been put forward as an option.”

Currie questions the legalities of any votes made by an appointed member.

“I have spoken to the attorney general and he says that he did not nor anyone in his office give an opinion on the Lincoln County matter and his office is investigating it,” Currie said.

She wants to see an election next year for the seat held by Posey, the only member so far to be appointed so far.

In 2012, the Legislature passed a law that the elections had to be during a general election.

“Next year we will have a Senate race and there will be plenty of time for qualifying and running an election,” she said. “I did support the bill to have superintendents appointed and school board members elected. The evidence that was shown was that you could have a larger pool to choose from when appointing a superintendent that may not live in the district. If I had known that this would happen I would have not only voted against it I would have worked hard to kill the bill.”