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Musgrove: About 30 more school districts might join lawsuit

Money-Graduation Cap_rgbJACKSON — Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said yesterday that about 30 more school districts are considering whether to join an education-funding lawsuit he filed against the state.

Fourteen districts, including Greenville and Hattiesburg, are already plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which seeks money to make up for budget shortfalls since 2010 because the Legislature has not fulfilled obligations of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. MAEP is a complex formula designed to give schools enough money to meet midlevel academic standards.

The lawsuit seeks back-payment for the districts that are plaintiffs, but it also seeks a change that could affect all school districts in the future: It asks a chancery judge to declare that the law’s use of the word “shall” means legislators have an unbreakable obligation to fully fund MAEP.

Musgrove filed the lawsuit Aug. 28, and additional districts have 30 days to join as plaintiffs. After that, they would need a judge’s permission to join.

The state has until late September to respond to the lawsuit.

Musgrove, a Democrat, served two terms in the state Senate and served as the chamber’s Education Committee chairman before he was elected lieutenant governor in 1995. As lieutenant governor, he pushed the Legislature to put MAEP into law in 1997 over the veto of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice.

Musgrove was elected governor in 1999 and was unseated in 2003 by Republican Haley Barbour.

MAEP was phased in over several years, but has been fully funded only twice since 1997, both times during statewide election years. In 2006, Barbour signed the change to the law to add that MAEP “shall” be funded, rather than “may.” That change is the basis for the lawsuit filed by Musgrove.

Musgrove spoke yesterday at a forum sponsored by Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps. He noted that state officials have talked about the possibility of lawmakers considering some sort of tax cut in 2015, which is a statewide election year.

“The current legislative leadership’s choice is to have more corporate tax breaks and election-year tax cuts and to hold the money for MAEP in the rainy day fund,” Musgrove said. “They have, in essence, rendered MAEP meaningless when they will not follow the law.”

A group called Better Jobs, Better Schools is gathering signatures for a proposed Mississippi constitutional amendment that seeks to require full funding of schools. The group opposes Musgrove’s lawsuit.

“You have to admire Gov. Musgrove because his heart’s in the right place, but the car he’s driving just is not going to get him there,” Patsy Brumfield, spokeswoman for Better Jobs, Better Schools, said after Musgrove’s speech yesterday.

“Frankly, if we had thought that we could have obtained full funding for MAEP through a lawsuit, we would be there right now and not sweating out on the street collecting 170,000 signatures,” Brumfield said. “We think this is the only way to make real change, with a constitutional amendment.”

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