Lawyers seek class action status for BEP lawsuit

Hamilton County school board’s lawyer is asking a judge to grant class action status to a pending lawsuit, reports the Times-Free Press, meaning every school district in Tennessee could be part of the legal effort to get full funding of the state’s Basic Education Program.

“While the larger districts have been the ones voicing concerns about the underfunding of education, this underfunding has ramifications literally everywhere,” school district attorney D. Scott Bennett said.

Hamilton County Schools and six nearby school districts — Bradley, Coffee, Grundy, Marion, McMinn and Polk — are plaintiffs in the lawsuit Bennett filed on March 24 in Davidson County Chancery Court.

The suit claims the state has “breached its duty under the Tennessee Constitution to provide a system of free public education for the children of this state.”

The lawsuit argues the state doesn’t provide enough funding for numerous expenses, including teacher pay and health insurance. The state underestimates by about $10,000 what teachers are actually paid, the lawsuit says, and pays only for 10 months of teachers’ 12 months of insurance.

Attorneys for the state deny the entire claim.

Bennett’s lawsuit should be “dismissed in its entirety,” said a 32-page memorandum filed in late April by Kevin Steiling, deputy state attorney general. The lawsuit relies on a “profoundly flawed interpretation” of three successful previous lawsuits against the BEP, the memo states.

“These pleas for more funding are not properly directed to the courts of Tennessee — they must be directed to the General Assembly,” Steiling wrote.

In his 2015-16 budget, which the Legislature passed after the lawsuit was filed, Gov. Bill Haslam added an extra $100 million for teacher salaries and $44 million for inflationary increases in the BEP, along with $30 million to pay for one more month of health insurance for teachers.