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Lawyers joust over property tax transfers to charter schools

Mississippi’s charter school law unconstitutionally diverts property tax money away from local school districts, lawyers for a group of parents told the state’s high court on Tuesday. But the state urged justices to uphold the law, arguing charter schools also belong to the local district.

The law’s opponents lost before a Hinds County judge, but in their appeal they argue the transfers are banned under the plain language of the Mississippi Constitution, as interpreted in a 2012 state Supreme Court decision. They say charter schools are harming traditional district schools by draining money away. They add that if the Legislature wants Mississippi to have charter schools, it should find some other way to fund them.

“The money is being spent in a way that’s unconstitutional,” said Christine Bischoff, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center who argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs

Lawyers for the state and charter schools say that’s a wrong reading of the law. They argue that students who attend charter schools are residents of local school districts and are benefiting from local property tax money that Mississippi’s charter school law requires be transferred from school districts.

“They are the public schools used by the taxed district’s students,” Krissy Nobile, an assistant attorney general, argued before the court.

Mississippi’s 1890 constitution says “Any county or separate school district may levy an additional tax, as prescribed by general law, to maintain its schools.” In 2012, the state Supreme Court interpreted that law to say lawmakers could not force the Pascagoula-Gautier school district to share property tax revenue with three other Jackson County school districts.

As Bischoff urged the justices to follow that case, much of her argument hinged on the word “its.” She argued that the only schools eligible to receive local property tax money are those under the direct control of a local school district. Under state law, each charter school is a separate public school district that isn’t under the control of a traditional local district. She argues for a narrower interpretation of the language than the state’s lawyers advocated.

“The government has argued that ‘its’ could mean a lot of different things,” Bischoff said.

That argument drew hostile questioning from five of the nine justices, though, indicating the plaintiffs could have a tough path persuading them that the lower court judge ruled incorrectly.

“The real owners of that district are the schoolchildren, aren’t they?” asked Justice Kenny Griffis at one point, in a line of reasoning that could suggest that any schools benefiting the residents of a district are eligible to receive tax money. That’s a distinction from the Pascagoula case, where local money was going to schools that Pascagoula and Gautier residents could not typically attend.

“Are they the schools controlled by the local school boards, or are they the schools used by the taxed district’s students? Nobile asked during her argument. “I think it’s the latter.”

Justices will release a decision later.

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