By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove made his pitch to the Lee County School Board on Tuesday, asking them to join a proposed lawsuit against the state.
The Board did not take action on Tuesday, saying it needs more time to research the proposal. The suit would seek payment of the $1.5 billion that the state has underfunded kindergarten to 12th-grade education since 2010.
Musgrove’s presentation was made in closed session because it involved prospective litigation.
“We told him we would look into it,” Board President Sherry Mask said. “We are not far enough into it to have an opinion.”
The lawsuit emerges from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a state law passed in 1997 that determines how much funding each school district should receive. It has been traditionally underfunded, however, including each of the past six years. This year’s appropriation is $257 million below what the formula requires.
The MAEP Legal Group, which includes Musgrove and other lawyers, nearly filed the suit last December but decided not to do so because several districts believed a budget surplus would exist, and MAEP would be fully funded this year. When that did not happen, but the Legislature instead opted to send $400 million to the state rainy day fund, the group decided to take action.
“The failure to fund MAEP is crippling districts across Mississippi,” said Musgrove, who authored MAEP as a state senator. “Education is the most important thing we can do across the state to create jobs. We are hurting our number one job creator.”
Only districts who sign onto the lawsuit would receive payment if it is successful. The attorneys will receive a percentage of that payment, according to a sliding-scale cap for contingency fees that is set in state law. Some school board attorneys also have been offered as much of 10 percent of any award their district receives.
“Our fee schedule is one that has been approved by the Legislature,” Musgrove said. “…When a school district joins in, their lawyer has work to do to help us in the local matter.”
Musgrove said on Tuesday that 15 districts had signed onto the lawsuit and that his group had made presentations to about 50 districts across the state. He declined to name which ones were on board.
The effort is separate from another issue to ensure funding, an attempt to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2015 ballot that would require Mississippi to “support an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”
Better Schools, Better Jobs, the group behind that effort, says it would ensure full funding in the future. They oppose the lawsuit, saying it could negatively impact their effort. They also say the state would not have the money to immediately repay past underfunding. Instead, they propose for future funding to be phased in, with 25 percent of new revenue going to K-12 education until the goal is met.
“Their issue is the past, and our issue is the future,” said Patsy Brumfield, communication director for Better Schools, Better Jobs.
Musgrove said the state could repay the money from its reserves or by issuing bonds or it could spread payments over several years. He said he’s concerned the Better Schools, Better Jobs initiative will not guarantee full funding.
“I’m open to any action that increases funding for education in Mississippi,” he said. “The proposed lawsuit is the only effort to try to recover funds that the school districts are owed and need to pay expenses.”
The Lee County School District would be eligible to receive $22.3 million under the lawsuit, representing the amount of money it had been underfunded since 2010.