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Analysis: Appeal over charter school funding heats up

JEFF AMY

Chancery court was never going to be anything but the first round in a lawsuit over how Mississippi’s charter schools are funded.

Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas ruled in February that diversions of local property taxes to charter schools are acceptable. But the inevitable appeal to the state Supreme Court is now in motion.

In recent weeks, the plaintiffs, plus three supporting groups have filed briefs with the Mississippi high court asking justices to overturn Thomas’ decision and rule that transfers of local property taxes violate the state Constitution.

The state is asking to delay its reply until October, and a decision by the court is unlikely before 2019.

The plaintiffs are a group of Jackson property owners who have children in traditional public schools in the city. They say the transfers are draining money away from the Jackson district, even as it faces fixed costs that it can’t cut as rapidly as students are decreasing. Mississippi now has five charter schools, four in Jackson and one in Clarksdale.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, are giving up one prong of the challenge they made in chancery court. They no longer contend that Mississippi’s charter school law is unconstitutional because the schools aren’t overseen by a local or state superintendent. But they continue to hammer at the other prong of their argument — that Section 206 of the state Constitution, as repeatedly interpreted by the state Supreme Court in recent years, prohibits state government from forcing one local district to give its property taxes to another district.

“The local tax transfer statute plainly violates Section 206’s use restriction,” wrote SPLC lawyer Will Bardwell for the plaintiffs. “Charter schools are not part of the school district in which they are geographically located. The Constitution permits a school district to levy an ad valorem tax, but restricts the use of this tax revenue to one and only one use: ‘to maintain its schools.'”

The Supreme Court ruled along those lines in 2012 when lawmakers tried to force the Pascagoula-Gautier school district to share property tax revenue from an oil refinery and a natural gas terminal with three other Jackson County school districts. However, Thomas reasoned the charter school case was different because Pascagoula students got no benefit from the transfer, while charter school students who live in a school district but attend charter schools do benefit from the taxes.

Bardwell urges justices to reject Thomas’ reasoning.

“Section 206 does not contemplate benefits or burdens,” he wrote. “It only allows a school district levying an ad valorem tax use the tax’s revenue ‘to maintain its schools’ – period. It makes no exceptions.

The Mississippi Association of Educators, the Education Law Center and the Clarksdale school district are all filing friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the plaintiffs.

The Clarksdale district urges justices to give “no weight” to arguments that invalidating property tax transfers will also void funding for out-of-district student transfers, agricultural high schools and jointly operated alternative schools. The Clarksdale brief argues those programs aren’t directly funded by property tax transfers.

The New Jersey-based Education Law Center, which advocates for more and equitable funding of traditional public schools, says in its brief that the Jackson district has already transferred more than $4.5 million in property taxes to charter schools. The center says research shows charter school funding diversions hurts local districts because they have fixed costs and often serve “elevated concentrations” of at-risk students.

“Loss of revenue to charter schools in combination with existing underfunding – the condition presently affecting (Jackson) schools – creates significant deficits in educational resources for students in district schools,” the center wrote.

» JEFF AMY has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/By%20Jeff%20Amy .

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