Both sides in school funding suit seek ruling

Published 12:11 am Tuesday, December 30, 2014

JACKSON (AP) — Both sides in a lawsuit over state funding for local school districts in Mississippi are asking a judge to rule in their favor without having a full trial in the case.

Twenty-one school districts represented by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove are seeking summary judgment, while Attorney General Jim Hood earlier asked that the case be dismissed. The Natchez-Adams School District heard from a representative of the Musgrove lawsuit, but chose not to join in with the other school districts.

Musgrove filed a motion Monday setting a Jan. 14 hearing before Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary.

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The suit asks Singletary to order lawmakers to never again underfund a state budget formula for schools, and to reimburse the districts what they’ve been shorted since 2009. The 21 districts, including Jackson, Greenville and Hattiesburg, are seeking $236 million.

Musgrove, in a motion for summary judgment filed Dec. 19, continues to base his case on a 2006 law that says the Legislature “shall” fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a formula that’s meant to provide enough money to Mississippi’s 146 school districts to pay for education. Lawmakers have appropriated $1.53 billion less than what the formula calls for over the past seven budget years.

“A minimally adequate education is not optional in Mississippi. It is guaranteed,” Musgrove wrote in a motion asking Singletary to issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the state. Musgrove said the state has enough money to reimburse districts for the shortages, pointing to dollars lawmakers have saved in the state’s rainy-day fund.

Musgrove, a Democrat, was lieutenant governor when the Legislature put MAEP into law in 1997 over the veto of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice. Musgrove was governor from 2000 to 2004.

Pointing to a long line of decisions that say laws with the word “shall” in them are mandates that must be obeyed all the time, Musgrove wrote, “The plain language of the statute requires that MAEP be fully funded.”

Hood said the 2006 law has no power to bind future legislatures.

“One session of elected legislators cannot dictate the discretionary budgeting and appropriation authority of a future session of elected legislators,” lawyers for Hood wrote in October.

Hood also argued that elsewhere in the 2006 law, lawmakers directed how money should be allotted when the full amount isn’t appropriated, showing lawmakers didn’t even intend for the statement to be binding. Musgrove argues the same law closed those partial-funding escape hatches after 2009.

Even if lawmakers did have the power to bind their successors, Hood argued a judge would unconstitutionally violate the separation of powers among the judicial, legislative and executive branches by telling lawmakers how to spend money.

“Courts do not step in and direct legislators how they must go about passing laws,” Hood’s office wrote. “Generally the separation of powers doctrine precludes courts from declaring how legislators must interpret any obligations the MAEP statutes impose on them.”

Another group — Better Schools, Better Jobs — has gathered signatures to put a referendum on Mississippi’s 2015 general election ballot that would amend the state constitution to guarantee “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”