By Jeff Amy
JACKSON – A group of lawyers including former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is traveling around Mississippi trying to get school districts to sign up for lawsuits against the state seeking payment of the $1.5 billion that the state had underfunded its K-12 school formula since Fiscal Year 2010.
Backers of a separate effort to write a full-funding requirement into the state Constitution are pushing against the proposed suits, saying they could blow a hole in the state’s budget, anger lawmakers and give lawyers too much of the money if they won. They argue a constitutional guarantee of future adequate funding is better.
A spokesman for Musgrove declined comment.
As lieutenant governor in 1997, Democrat Musgrove helped steer the Mississippi Adequate Education Program into law over the veto of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice. It appears only a handful of districts have signed up so far for lawsuits, although presentations have been made to many school boards. There’s no class-action status, so individual districts must sue.
Okolona Superintendent Dexter Green said his Northeast Mississippi district signed up because it’s struggling to maintain buildings and buses and can’t afford to hire any new employees.
“Our students in our school district are suffering,” Green said Monday.
There is precedent for suing. Mississippi has pumped more than $350 million into three historically black public universities since it settled the Ayers federal discrimination lawsuit in 2004.
Supporters note full funding is legally required, pointing to a legal passage saying, “Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.” The formula is supposed to provide enough for teaching, administration, buses and other expenses.
But Jim Keith, a leading school board lawyer, points to other language discussing how money gets distributed “in any year in which the MAEP is not fully funded,” saying it’s not clear a judge will uphold mandatory funding language. Nancy Loome, executive director of the lobbying group The Parents Campaign, said lawsuits could anger lawmakers.
“The response of the Legislature very well could be to dismantle MAEP and then we would be left with nothing,” she said. “It’s in statute and the Legislature could change the statute.”
Keith, Loome and the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents instead support a petition drive that would allow voters to enact a constitutional guarantee of an adequate education, saying it would ensure ongoing funding.
“If you sue, you get one-time money, and then what?” said Sam Bounds, executive director of the superintendents’ association.
Other lawyers besides Musgrove have appeared before school boards, including Dustin Childers, the son of Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Travis Childers and Casey Langston Lott, the nephew of disbarred lawyer Joey Langston. The pair works for the Langston and Lott law firm in Booneville.
Lott confirmed that the self-described MAEP Legal Group hopes to sue and win judgment before the 2015 Legislature convenes, but deferred further comment to Musgrove.
A proposed agreement obtained by The Associated Press calls for the MAEP Legal Group to get 25 percent of any award won by a district up to $10 million. Fees would then step down. But about two-thirds of Mississippi’s 147 school districts are unlikely to recover more than $10 million because they have fewer than 3,000 students. Districts would also have to pay lawsuit expenses.
“I think the money needs to go to kids that deserve it and not exorbitant legal fees,” Bounds said.
Keith said lawsuit organizers have offered some school board attorneys 10 percent of any award for the district they represent. As long as lawyers tell their clients about such payments, that’s not illegal, Keith said, but it might be persuasive.
“Obviously, a board attorney is very influential with their board,” Keith said.