JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Legislature does not have an obligation to fully fund a school budget formula that was put into law two decades ago, the state Supreme Court said Thursday in upholding a ruling from a lower court.
Twenty-one school districts sued the state in August 2014, just after the start of the 2015 state budget year. They sought more than $235 million to make up for years of shortfalls from 2010 to 2015 — some of the years when lawmakers didn’t fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
The formula is designed to give school districts enough money to meet midlevel academic standards, but it has been short-funded most years.
Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary ruled against the school districts in July 2015, saying that the formula is not a mandate. Justices said Thursday that Singletary ruled correctly.
The attorney representing the districts is former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who pushed the funding formula into law in 1997 when he was chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Musgrove said in an interview Thursday that he is “disappointed but not surprised” by the Supreme Court ruling.
“While I disagree with their decision, I’m extremely proud of the school districts that had the courage to stand together and fight for a better future for their students,” Musgrove said. “I wish basic level funding for our schools was a simple principle that brought people together. Unfortunately, it has become a hot-button issue that creates political rancor and I understood the court’s reluctance to takes this issue head on.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves praised the Supreme Court decision.
“Mississippi’s Constitution is clear — it is the Legislature’s sole authority to allocate tax dollars, and I appreciate the decision of the justices to dismiss the lawsuit by a former Democrat elected official,” Reeves said in a statement.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, a Republican from Gautier, said he was relieved the Supreme Court did not demand that legislators fully fund the education formula, particularly in light of budget cuts that legislators and the governor made to most state agencies the past couple of years because tax collections fell short of expectations.
“To mandate something if we don’t have it — it would really hurt all the other agencies,” Read said. “We probably would have to cut agencies and raise taxes.”
A multi-year package of state tax cuts is also starting to take effect during the current budget year, which began July 1. While supporters say the cuts should spur economic growth, critics say they will further squeeze the budget, including money for schools.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure the children of Mississippi get all they can,” Read said.
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