Mississippi School Districts Suing State Over Underfunding

A lawsuit has been filed in Hinds County Chancery Court by several Mississippi school districts accusing the state of not fully funding public schools. The suit says the state owes 14 school districts more than $115 million in funding since 2010.

A state law which was passed in 2006 states that “Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).”  Anna Wolfe, reporting for the Jackson Free Press, writes that former Governor Ronnie Musgrove is the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.  Musgrove says the word “shall”, in legal terms, imposes a binding agreement.

Legally, there was a “phase-in” period between 2007-2009, but by 2010, full funding was mandatory.  The state has not yet complied, and Musgrove intends to recover the funds for the years they are owed.

“I could not sit by and have one of Mississippi’s greatest legislative achievements rendered meaningless by the leaders of the legislature,” Musgrove said.

Since 2010, the state has underfunded public education by $1.5 billion, with the greatest shortage in fiscal year 2014 of $292 million.  At this time, Mississippi has more than $400 million in a “rainy day fund” which could be used for school funding.  This means no taxes would have to be raised and the state would not have to go bankrupt in order to settle the lawsuit.

“Local districts are being forced to raise local taxes to make up for the money that is being held hostage in Jackson,” Musgrove said.

Some are calling Musgrove “a greedy trial lawyer”, but Musgrove, who was one of the authors of the MAEP formula, and worked to have it passed and funded, has a vested interest in the success of MAEP.

“This has been my life’s work, to make sure that we have better schools, we have better opportunities for young people,” Musgrove said.

Not only is the lawsuit seeking money, but it includes a request for lawmakers to avoid underfunding the MAEP again, according to Jess Amy of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

“It’s disheartening to see over the last several years that the Legislature won’t even follow the law that they themselves passed,” he told The Associated Press earlier this month.

There are backers of a ballot initiative to ensure that “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools” is written into the state Constitution.  They have also tried to keep school districts from suing, warning that the legislature could react negatively and cut funding.  Many districts agree with this viewpoint.

“Millions of dollars will go into Ronnie’s and other lawyers’ pockets instead of into the schools,” said Claiborne Barksdale, a referendum supporter and retired CEO of the Barksdale Reading Initiative, which is funded with brother Jim Barksdale’s $100 million pledge to improve reading.

Musgrove’s firm would stand to make about $27.8 million in fees from the 14 districts they represent, but Musgrove says an amendment would also include time-consuming lawsuits that could be as expensive as his fees.

“There are so many schools out there that can’t wait into the future for the ballot initiative,” he said. “They’re having to cut programs.”

Musgrove traveled to Hattiesburg  last week, and will be traveling over the entire state, to make an attempt at entice other districts to join the suit.  According to Superintendent James Bacchus, the Hattiesburg Public School District did what was best for the district and voted to be part of the suit.  Ellen Ciurczak, writer for the Hattiesburg American, says that Bacchus pointed out that his district is suffering under increased class sizes, future student retention, and diversion of federal funds for kindergarten to third-grade classes.

WLBT, in a report by Courtney Ann Jackson, shares a statement made by Musgrove.

“So many of the districts have a shortage of school buses, cut programs, reduce the number of teachers/ teacher aids, that they have actually affected classroom performance,” said Musgrove.