By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Major policy changes in Mississippi’s past have required litigation, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said on Wednesday.
Musgrove met with the Daily Journal’s editorial board to explain the lawsuit he filed last week against the state of Mississippi. It seeks to recover payment school districts have been shortchanged during the past six years under the state’s funding formula – the Mississippi Adequate Education Program – and to win an injunction forcing the formula to be fully funded in the future.
In defending the action, Musgrove referenced past Mississippi lawsuits that provided funding to school districts and to mental health facilities, that ensured better treatment of prisoners and that ended school segregation.
“That is the purpose of the court, to ensure that policy is being followed, that the law is being followed,” said Musgrove, a member of the MAEP Legal Group, which filed the suit.
It is on behalf of 14 school districts who have signed onto it, including Okolona, Prentiss County and Clay County in Northeast Mississippi. Other school districts have until Sept. 26 to join. Only those who do would be eligible to receive the back-funding, which dates to Fiscal Year 2010. The 14 current complainants would be eligible for $115 million.
If the suit filed in Hinds County Chancery Court is successful, Musgrove said, all districts would benefit from an injunction that would guarantee funding in the future.
Critics of the lawsuit have said repaying underfunding from the past six years could bankrupt the state. They also have questioned the high lawyer fees that would go to members of the legal team.
Musgrove said Wednesday the state could pay $115 million from its rainy day fund without having to cut any programs. If more districts join and the settlement amount is larger, he said, payments could be negotiated to be made over an extended period of time. The amount could grow as large as $1.5 billion if all districts participate.
The lawyer fees follow a 2012 state law that outlines the maximum contingency fee that can be charged by an outside attorney representing the state. The law does not apply to this effort, but Musgrove is using their fee schedule as a guide. According to it, the legal team could earn as much as $24.55 million.
Some have suggested Musgrove could have charged less for a cause that means so much to him. Asked about that, he took offense at those who question his support of education funding. He helped write the MAEP law and ensured its passage when he was lieutenant governor.
“When you grow up poor like I did and when you don’t really know where your next meal or your next place to sleep happens to be, education means an awful lot and that is why you see the passion you see with me,” he said. “…For people to think that attorney fees is the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing is to say I have adopted a 30-year get rich-quick scheme because I’ve spent my entire life on this.”