A lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center that threatens funding for Mississippi charter schools could hinge on a key constitutional question after oral arguments were held Tuesday in Hinds County Chancery Court.
The question is: Does the Mississippi State Constitution allow the redirection of local property tax revenue from local public school districts to public charter schools, which are not under the control of the district? The SPLC says no, and attorneys for the state, the state charter school association, one of the schools and a group of parents say yes.
The arguments hinge on two sections: 206, which created a state education trust fund and allows local districts to levy property taxes; and 208, which requires state funds to go to what are termed “free schools.”
Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas set a pair of deadlines for the attorneys in the case after 90 minutes of oral arguments, with May 10 for proposed findings of fact and June 21 for any required rebuttals. A ruling will likely be handed down by Thomas after that time.
The SPLC’s lead attorney, Will Bardwell, said in his arguments that charter schools violated both sections 206 and 208. He also said the SPLC wasn’t seeking the dissolution of charter schools, but that the Legislature needed to find another way of funding them that didn’t involve local property taxes. He argued since only the state has oversight over charter schools (the Charter School Authorizer Board) and local districts have no control, charter schools shouldn’t receive ad valorem (property) taxes that otherwise would have gone to the public school district.
Bardwell cited a 2012 case heard by the Mississippi Supreme Court, Pascagoula School District vs. Tucker. The court ruled unconstitutional a new law passed by the Legislature that required Pascagoula to share ad valorem revenues with the other school districts in Jackson County. The court ruled in favor of Pascagoula because the state constitution says in Section 206 that a district can “levy an additional tax, as prescribed by general law, to maintain its schools.”
Michael Bentley, who is representing Midtown Public Charter School, said that if Thomas ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the state’s three charter schools would have to be shuttered and that it would have an adverse effect on their students. He also made the point that the district affected, Jackson Public Schools, has not filed with the plaintiffs and instead filed a motion to be dismissed from the proceedings.
Krissy Nobile, representing the state from the attorney general’s office, hammered home an argument concerning Section 208. According to state law, if a child lives 30 miles or more for a school located in their district, they can attend a school in an adjacent district. The money that the old district received for that child, both in state and local tax revenue, follows the child to the new school.
Nobile also brought up the matter of conservatorships, where the state takes over a failing school district and fires the local superintendent and the school board. Under such a scenario, the Mississippi Department of Education appoints a conservator to get the district back on track. At no point during this process does the local district have any control over the property tax revenues still flowing into its coffers.
Gregg Mayer, who is representing the state’s charter school association, said if the constitutional standard applied by the SPLC — which requires both state and local control to receive both state and local funds — could spell the end for conservatorships and the transfer rule if Thomas ruled against the charter schools.
Bardwell told Mississippi Watchdog that local funding is the “heart of the issue.” He also said there’s a big difference between the 2013 Charter Schools Act and two programs raised by the defendants, school district conservatorships and the transfer law, to defend the funding formula of charter schools.
“Everyone in the courtroom agrees that all the programs we discussed are constitutional,” Bardwell said. “The difference between the Charter School Act and those statutes that provide funding for those programs is that the Charter Schools Act explicitly requires districts to send ad valorem tax revenue to schools outside their control. The other statutes don’t breathe a word about ad valorem tax revenue.”
Mississippi Justice Institute director Mike Hurst, who is representing several parents who have children in both charter and Jackson Public Schools, told Mississippi Watchdog that the SPLC made some key admissions in their arguments in the case.
“I think when the SPLC admitted that the other types of public schools (the Mississippi School of Math and Science, for example) we have around the state — and that the Mississippi Legislature has authorized to receive both state and local funding — are constitutional, I don’t see how they can argue that public charter schools are unconstitutional. They are the same type of setup. It’s a contradiction in their argument.”