September 4, 2014 10:57:49 AM
Former Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove met with The Dispatch editorial board on Wednesday to promote a lawsuit that would force the state to compensate school districts for the amount of money they have been under-funded since 2010. The suit would also ask that the court order the state legislature to fully fund the state's K-12 schools according to its own funding formula passed in 1997.
As the lead attorney representing the school districts who are plaintiffs in the case, Musgrove said he is convinced the only way the state legislature will ever keep its promise of adequate school funding is through the courts.
"Historically, that is what you find," Musgrove said. "From the Chickasaw Cession (which forced the state to provide funding for districts that had no 16th Section land) to 16th Section reform (a court order that requires leases of 16th Section land to be based on fair market value), history shows that suits had to be filed to make the state do what it agreed to do. There's been no other way."
To date, 14 school districts have joined the suit, including Clay County, which stands to recoup roughly $500,000. Combined, the plaintiffs seek $115 million. Musgrove said about 25 other districts are considering joining the suit, which could push the amount to as much as $400 million. To date, the Columbus, Lowndes County, Starkville and Oktibbeha County districts have not joined the suit. Collectively, those districts could recoup roughly $40 million if they chose to join a successful suit.
The original 1997 Mississippi Adequate Education Program said the state "may" fund schools based on a defined formula, but the lawsuit only covers the amount of money the state has shorted schools since 2010, when the word "may" was changed by legislators to "shall" in the law.
According to Mississippi Department of Education records the schools have been shortchanged by approximately $1.5 billion since 2010.
Musgrove said he originally intended to file the suit last year, but wanted to see if an expected revenue increase this year would move the legislature to fully fund education.
This year, the state enjoyed a revenue surplus of more than $450 million, but still did not fund schools based on the MAEP standards.
"If they weren't going to fully fund education this year, I am convinced they never will," Musgrove said.
Musgrove's suit is one of two efforts to force the legislature to fully fund the MAEP. A grass-roots organization called Better Schools, Better Jobs hopes to get a ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment that would require full funding of schools on the 2015 ballot.
Some, including another former Mississippi governor with a reputation for being an advocate of education, prefer the ballot initiative over Musgrove's lawsuit. Gov. William Winter told the crowd at the Neshoba County Fair in July that he did not support the lawsuit.
That only 14 of the 152 districts have joined the suit suggests Winter's preference is widespread.
But Musgrove believes the suit is far more likely to achieve its goal than a ballot initiative.
Musgrove said the language in the initiative makes it unlikely that schools would be funded in a timely fashion, noting that it stipulates 25 percent of any additional revenue each year would go to school funding.
"That would require seven consecutive years of 3 percent growth," Musgrove argued. "That's never happened in our state. More realistically, it would take 17 years to reach full funding."
Musgrove said the ballot initiative is almost identical to one Kansas approved, but still hasn't implemented.
"It's been back and forth in the courts for six years now and the schools still haven't seen the funding required by the Kansas constitution," Musgrove said.
Musgrove is convinced that the best hope for a fully-funded educational system is through the courts.
History and the law, he says, are on his side.