August 29, 2014 10:11:29 AM
JACKSON -- Fourteen Mississippi school districts sued the state Thursday, seeking money they say they were illegally shorted by the state's public school funding formula over the last six years.
The lawsuit -- which the Clay County School District is a part of -- also asks a judge to order lawmakers to never again underfund the Mississippi Adequate Educational Program.
State lawmakers have underfunded the formula by $1.5 billion since 2009. The districts, including Greenville, Hattiesburg and Simpson County, say they're owed $115 million. More school systems could join the lawsuit, but districts that don't join would not receive back money.
Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has been pushing the effort. As lieutenant governor in 1997, the Democrat helped steer the Mississippi Adequate Education Program into law over the veto of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice.
With lawmakers putting more than $400 million into savings accounts in the current budget, Musgrove argues there was enough money to fill the $250 million shortfall in this year's formula.
"It's disheartening to see over the last several years that the Legislature won't even follow the law that they themselves passed," he told The Associated Press earlier this month.
Current law says the Legislature "shall" fully fund the formula, and Musgrove argues that leaves no room for interpretation. He hopes the lawsuit is resolved before the Legislature convenes in 2016. Others say it's not that simple, and any verdict in Hinds County Chancery Court would be subject to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Backers of a ballot initiative to guarantee "an adequate and efficient system of free public schools" into the state Constitution have actively worked to persuade school districts not to sue. They warn lawmakers might react angrily by cutting funding.
"Millions of dollars will go into Ronnie's and other lawyers' pockets instead of into the schools," said Claiborne Barksdale, a referendum supporter and retired CEO of the Barksdale Reading Initiative, which is funded with brother Jim Barksdale's $100 million pledge to improve reading. "The irony is striking. The constitutional referendum is by far the best way to attack the underfunding issue -- a permanent, conservative, constitutionally-grounded approach with broad public backing."
Musgrove's legal group would make $27.8 million in fees from the 14 districts they represent, according to Associated Press calculations using a sample fee schedule.
"It is disappointing to me that Ronnie Musgrove is using education as a pretense to get rich at the expense of the Mississippi taxpayers," Gov Phil Bryant said in a statement, warning that successful suits could force the state to raise taxes.
Musgrove argues his approach will provide faster relief and get districts back money they've already lost, instead of just helping in the future. He said the amendment would have to be enforced by time-consuming lawsuits that could be as expensive as his.
"There are so many schools out there that can't wait into the future for the ballot initiative," he said. "They're having to cut programs."
Other districts suing include Clarksdale, Leake County, Okolona, Prentiss County, Richton, Smith County, Tate County, Wayne County, West Tallahatchie and Wilkinson County.
Richton Superintendent Noal Cochran said board members believe they can support the lawsuit and the constitutional amendment. Cochran said the district has had to cut teachers and electives such as fine arts, while it hasn't been able to improve its buildings.
"The board felt like we had an obligation to try to recoup the funding that's been lost," Cochran said.
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