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Gov. Reeves fills vacancies on key education boards

By Kate Royals

Mississippi Today

Gov. Tate Reeves, waiting until after the 2021 legislative session ended, announced nine appointments late Tuesday afternoon to the three boards that govern the state’s public education entities.

The governor announced four appointments for the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, two to the Board of Education and three to the Mississippi Community College Board.

The appointments come after at least two of the boards struggled to conduct business as usual the past few months because of vacancies that Reeves didn’t fill on time.

At times in recent months, the nine-member Board of Education has not had enough members to constitute a quorum to conduct business because of the vacancies the governor was responsible for filling and one vacancy each that Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann are responsible for filling. Hosemann and Gunn still have not filled their spots on the Education Board.

The board, due to a shortage of board members, was unable to move forward with approving additional flexibility for the Gulfport School District in April and had to remove from its upcoming agenda more funding for a pre-kindergarten program in Tallahatchie County. And earlier this month, IHL Board, uncertain it would have enough members to legally vote on finance items at its May 20 regular meeting, called an emergency meeting to consider those matters on May 5

Reeves appointed Wendi Barrett and Matt Miller to the nine-member Board of Education, which oversees the Mississippi Department of Education and adopts policies and rules for the state’s public schools. Barrett is an English teacher at St. Martin High School in Ocean Springs and has a Ph.D. in higher education and administration from William Carey University. Miller is an attorney at the law firm Copeland, Cook, Taylor and Bush in Hattiesburg. 

The terms of four members of the College Board ended earlier this month, meaning the panel would have had just enough members to conduct business for Thursday’s meeting if Reeves had not made his appointments Tuesday.

Reeves’ four picks to the IHL Board are Ormella Cummings, Teresa Hubbard, Gregg Rader, and Hal Parker, who has been reappointed.

Cummings is the chief strategy officer for North Mississippi Health Services, a non-profit that provides medical and surgical services to rural counties in northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama. Hubbard, a resident of Oxford, is president and CEO of CITE Armored, a Holly Springs-based manufacturer of armored vehicles like SWAT trucks. Rader is the chief executive officer of Columbus Recycling Corporation. Parker, who invests in real estate, was first appointed to the board in 2012 by Gov. Phil Bryant.

Cummings graduated from University of Mississippi, and Hubbard is an alumna of Delta State University. Both Rader and Parker graduated from Mississippi State University. 

To the Mississippi Community College Board, Reeves appointed Luke Montgomery, the president and CEO of a short-term lending company in Fulton, and Will Symmes, a partner at a Gulfport multidisciplinary law firm. Johnny McRight, who owns a Greenville-based company that manufactures soil micronutrients, was reappointed. McRight and Montgomery already were serving on the board that oversees the state’s 15 two-year colleges after being appointed by Bryant.

Montgomery attended Itawamba Community College and is also an MSU alum, and McRight attended Mississippi Delta Community College before transferring to UM. Symmes graduated from University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi College School of Law. 

“I am confident that each of these appointees have the credentials and unique and diverse experiences to help us continue improving Mississippi’s education system in a way that prioritizes students above all else,” Reeves said in a press release. “Whether at the K-12, community college, or university level, I believe improving our educational achievement levels is critical to our long-term success and will further our efforts to make Mississippi the best place in America to live, work, and raise a family.”

Reeves opted not to name the appointees during the 2021 session, when their confirmations would have been taken up by the Senate. There is a question about whether Reeves can fill the positions at this point without a special session, but it does not appear Reeves’ authority to make the appointments will be challenged, according to various Senate sources. Instead, the Senate will take up the appointments in the 2022 session after they already had been serving on their respective boards.

But in March, legal experts told Mississippi Today that there is a question of whether the appointees could begin serving prior to the next legislative session, which could be either a special session called by the governor or the 2022 regular session.

The attorney general, in a 1977 opinion, seemed to support the argument that for regularly scheduled vacancies the governor must make the appointments in the session before the vacancy occurs or wait until the next session. The opinion stated when a “term is about to expire and will expire by limitation before the next session of the Senate, the governor should nominate a person to fill the vacancy” and “if he fails to do so, he cannot make a valid appointment to fill such a vacancy in the vacation of the Senate.” If the governor tried to do so, it “would be to limit and abridge the right of the Senate to advise and consent to the appointment.”

A 2015 document compiled by the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee reaches essentially the same conclusion.

The PEER report said state law “requires” that the governor make the appointment in the session before any regularly scheduled vacancy that occurred within nine months of the legislative session. But the report goes on the say that in many instances the governor has appointed someone after the session ended and that appointee began serving prior to being considered by the Senate in the next regular session.

“This practice is in direct contravention of” state law, the PEER report concluded.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who has overseen multiple confirmation hearings during his legislative career, said he is not sure whether a special session should be called to fill the positions, but said, “The real problem is this it is not worded clearly. We need to write a law that is easy to understand.”

Research conducted by Mississippi Today found that former governors Phil Bryant and Haley Barbour submitted to the Senate their College Board appointees to be confirmed in the session before the appointees’ tenures began. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove made some College Board appointments after the session ended and they began serving before they were confirmed by the Senate.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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