By Chris Kieffer
Fourteen Mississippi school districts filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court on Thursday demanding full funding of the state’s schools.
The suit was filed by the MAEP Legal Group, which includes former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. It seeks for those 14 districts – including Okolona, Prentiss County and Clay County in Northeast Mississippi – to be repaid a total of about $115 million that they have been underfunded since Fiscal Year 2010 under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
That is the formula the state uses to determine how much money each school district should receive for operating costs. Under it, property-poor school districts receive a greater percentage of state funds for such basics as teacher and staff salaries and maintenance. It has been fully funded only twice and has been underfunded by about $1.5 billion since Fiscal Year 2010, including $255 million for the current school year.
The lawsuit seeks not only to recover back funds for participating districts, but also to obtain a court injunction forcing the Legislature to fully fund the formula in the future.
Other complainants include the Clarksdale, Greenville, Hattiesburg, Leake County, Richton, Simpson County, Smith County, Tate County, Wayne County, West Tallahatchie and Wilkinson County school districts. The suit allows other Mississippi school districts up to 30 days to join.
Among the three Northeast Mississippi complainants, Prentiss County is owed about $8.2 million, Okolona $2.4 million and Clay County $644,000. Efforts to reach superintendents of each of those three districts for comment were unsuccessful.
“School districts cannot live without this funding, and local districts are being forced to raise local taxes to try to make up for the money that is being held hostage in Jackson,” Musgrove said in a press release. “We hope to get as much money back as possible for every school district. We hope to make education a top priority in Mississippi again. We hope to create opportunity for everyone in Mississippi. The only way to do that is to legally force the state to fully fund education.”
As lieutenant governor in 1997, Musgrove played a key role in steering MAEP’s passage. He served as governor from 2000 to 2004.
“Funding for education in Mississippi has been my life’s work,” Musgrove said in the release. “Watching that law being rendered meaningless by legislative leadership who choose not to fund education, even when the state has the money, is heartbreaking.”
In recent weeks, Musgrove has discussed the lawsuit with school districts throughout the state. It claims that a 2006 law signed by former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour mandates full funding by use of the word “shall.”
“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 told The Associated Press in a statement, warning that successful suits could force the state to raise taxes.
The lawsuit is different than the “Better Schools Better Jobs” group that aims to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2015 ballot that it says would ensure full funding of schools.
That initiative would require a percentage of state revenue growth to be dedicated to MAEP until it was fully funded.
The Better Schools, Better Jobs group has been critical of Musgrove’s potential lawsuit, saying it could negatively impact its initiative effort. Its members also have criticized the contingency fees the MAEP Leagal Group’s attorneys would receive.
Those fees were determined by a sliding-scale cap for such fees that is set into state law, Musgrove said. A calculation by The Associated Press determined they could be as high as $27.8 million.
“This lawsuit is not the way to go and is very unfortunate,” Claiborne Barksdale, the retired CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute and a member of Better Schools Better Jobs, said on Thursday. “Millions of dollars will go into Ronnie’s and other lawyers’ pockets instead of into schools. 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 has said the initiative would not guarantee full funding of MAEP.
“I’m open to any action that increased funding for education in Mississippi,” he said in July. “The proposed lawsuit is the only effort to try to recover funds that the school districts are owed and need to pay expenses.”
Bobby Harrison contributed to this story.