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NASD may join state lawsuit

NATCHEZ — The Natchez-Adams School District may join dozens of other districts in suing the state of Mississippi for $10.8 million.

That’s the amount the Natchez-Adams School District has been underfunded by the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) since 2010.

The Natchez-Adams School Board heard from a Ridgeland attorney seeking to gather the local district’s support Thursday. The school board ultimately took the matter under advisement and will decide what, if any, action to take at next month’s meeting.

MAEP was created to equally distribute funds to the state’s public education system, but has been fully funded only twice since it was signed into law in 1997.

Jesse Mitchell, founding partner of The Mitchell Firm, gave a presentation to the school board Thursday evening regarding litigation his firm and two others are filing on behalf of school districts across the state.

The lawsuit, Mitchell said, requires the Legislature to pay back the entire amount it has underfunded the districts that join the litigation group since 2010, which is when the funding became mandatory.

“This funding is the backbone of what you guys do,” Mitchell said. “Without proper and adequate funding, you guys are handicapped and, ultimately, the sacrifice is passed down to our kids.”

Mitchell said the basis of the lawsuit relies on the wording of the legislation behind MAEP, which states, “The Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Fund.”

“The language in the statue is strong,” Mitchell said. “We have the strongest statue compared to many other states.”

Mitchell told members of the school board that the litigation group has commitments from nearly 40 school districts across Mississippi already and hopes to get more by the second week of August, which is when the group will file the lawsuit.

NASD Superintendent Frederick Hill asked Mitchell if the school district could be punished in any way from the Legislature if it were to join the litigation group.

“Wouldn’t that jeopardize what the state gives us in the future?” Hill asked.

Mitchell told Hill, and other board members who eventually asked the same question, that the likelihood of that happening was slim.

“It would be very difficult to put a bullseye on individual districts,” Mitchell said. “I’m not sure how much more damage they could do.”

Board President Tim Blalock, who is also an attorney, said there are laws in place that prevent the Legislature from doing that type of targeting.

“They can’t pick and choose which of the 150 school districts they choose to punish,” Blalock said. “If the Legislature is going to take retribution, they’re going to take it whether we hop on board or not.”

Board members also asked Mitchell which other school districts had signed on with the litigation group.

Mitchell said he was only tasked with visiting a certain region so he didn’t have a full list, but did say that Meridian, Clarksdale and Cleveland were among the districts that had voted in favor of joining.

Board member Benny Wright said he would be interested to see if the larger school districts in the state, such as Jackson, would join.

“To have them on board would certainly enhance the perception that Mississippi is moving forward on this issue,” Wright said.

Board members also asked how much joining the litigation group would cost the district.

If the group provided the NASD the entire $10.8 million, the law firms would collect 25 percent, or $2.7 million.

Other firms involved in the group include Langston & Lott and Musgrove Smith Law, a firm founded by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove who was governor when MAEP became law.

In other news from the meeting:

4The board approved its budget for the next fiscal year, which includes a request of $811,855 more in taxes.

Hill said the increase would go toward funding state-mandated teacher pay raises and costs associated with renovations and changes to various district schools.

Board member Thelma Newsome said she felt the increase was inline with the district’s goals.

“The bottom line is we have to educate our children, and regardless of what anyone says, we’re doing a fairly good job,” Newsome said. “Test scores are not where we would like them to be, but eventually we’ll get to that point.

“If we don’t do all these things now, we won’t get the results we want.”

The approved budget and increase will be sent to the Adams County Board of Supervisors to be converted into a millage.

The county cannot, by law, deny the request for additional money by the school board. Whether or not increasing the millage rate is required to generate the additional school funds or moved from elsewhere in the county budget is up to the Board of Supervisors. The board sets the county’s tax rate.